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Trial and error: The Irish Innocence Project fighting for the wrongly convicted

A Netflix series has highlighted the work of a group battling the failings of the US justice system. Mary McGill talks to some of the people behind the Irish branch which is working on 40 active cases and won a posthumous case for a man hanged in 1941

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Exonerated: John Nolley hugs family members as Emily Pelz, centre, and Barry Scheck, right, of the Innocence Project legal team wipe away tears in 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Nolley had been found guilty of murder in 1998

Exonerated: John Nolley hugs family members as Emily Pelz, centre, and Barry Scheck, right, of the Innocence Project legal team wipe away tears in 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Nolley had been found guilty of murder in 1998

Tribune News Service via Getty I

Exonerated: John Nolley hugs family members as Emily Pelz, centre, and Barry Scheck, right, of the Innocence Project legal team wipe away tears in 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Nolley had been found guilty of murder in 1998

Henry ‘Harry’ Gleeson was hanged for murder on April 23, 1941, and he went to the gallows protesting his innocence. In his jail cell at Mountjoy Prison on the eve of his death, he told his junior counsel Seán MacBride: “I pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing will be like an open book.” It would be 74 years before his name was cleared, when he became the first person in the history of the state to be granted a posthumous pardon.

In 1940, he had found his neighbour Mary ‘Moll’ McCarthy shot dead in a field in Marlhill, near New Inn, Co Tipperary. Gardaí claimed that he had killed her to stop his uncle finding out that they had been in a relationship and disinheriting him. Gleeson vehemently denied this but at the Central Criminal Court in February 1941, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

The Department of Justice’s landmark decision in 2015 to overturn his conviction came after years of pressure. Books and news reports had outlined inconsistencies in the case against him. But it wasn’t until the foundation of the Justice for Harry Gleeson group in 2012 that the call reached a critical mass. This intensified when the group contacted the Irish Innocence Project, a branch of the international Innocence Network, based at Griffith College in Dublin. The project’s goal is to help the wrongly convicted prove their innocence.