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.
“We would not have been able to do it without them,” says Kevin Gleeson, grandnephew of Gleeson and member of the Justice for Harry Gleeson group. “They were a huge, huge asset. A phrase we used a good few times was that they were the key to a locked door. The expertise they brought to the table, their direction and how they approached the whole thing definitely made the difference. We had the knowledge, we brought the story to them and they were able to build this case and highlight this huge miscarriage of justice.”
The project’s exploits have become the subject of a Netflix documentary series, The Innocence Files. Capitalising on audiences’ seemingly bottomless appetite for true crime, the show examines the groundbreaking work of the original Innocence Project in the US. What sets the series apart from its genre stablemates is the vital nature of the project’s work, both in getting wrongful convictions overturned and in campaigning for criminal justice reform.
Founded in 1992 by lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project investigates suspected miscarriages of justice, including the cases of prisoners on death row.
In depicting the painstaking work the project does, The Innocence Files lays bare some shocking failings in the American justice system. It is also deeply moving, following the lives of Innocence Project clients who have been exonerated and showing in heartbreaking detail the toll that wrongful convictions have taken on victims and families.
The Gleeson case marked an early significant win for the Irish Innocence Project, setting a precedent in Irish law and helping his family find some closure. The Irish Innocence Project now has 40 active cases, dealing mainly with major crimes such as homicide, sexual violence and serious harm against the person or property. It receives institutional support from Griffith College and Trinity College Dublin.
There is a steady demand for the project’s advocacy and investigative services in Ireland. Clients are typically in prison or have been released and want to clear their name. Unlike the US system, where the project can litigate as well as build cases, under Irish law, external legal representatives must be the ones who take the cases to court. “We have cases of a very significant vintage," says Dr Edward Mathews, director of the Irish Innocence Project. “Some are quite old. We only deal with cases through the Irish legislative context when the [right to] appeal has been exhausted.”
“We also have people who have not been released from prison who otherwise would have been released because they are not in a position to say to the authorities, ‘Well, I admit my guilt and thus I should be treated more fairly in the remission system’. We have people who were convicted decades ago, people convicted in the last decade and other people who have been convicted in the last number of years.”
One of the most striking aspects of The Innocence Files is how it shows the fallibility of evidence that is often regarded as sacrosanct, such as eye-witness identification. We are all familiar with climatic courtroom scenes where a key witness takes the stand, to be asked by the prosecution if the person they saw committing a crime is in the room. If the witness points to the defendant, it seals their guilt. In reality, this kind of identification is far from straightforward.
“ID evidence is universally suspect,” Mathews says. “Even the most genuine of people, who have no grudge to bear, in the most genuine of circumstances, will say and have said ‘X person was seen doing X thing’ and it has later become apparent through other more objective evidence, if you like, that they were simply mistaken. They didn’t set out to do this in a malignant way. It’s a systemic failure of the human system. The system of laws and their operation are human systems — they are not machines.”
Mathews describes another issue that the Innocent Project has encountered around the world: “In any investigative force, you can have tunnel vision, where there is a focus on a particular suspect. Then what you have are confirmatory activities which follow on from that. These seek to confirm the suspicion you have, as opposed to seeking perhaps to fully investigate all of the possibilities which might emerge in terms of the variety of suspects.”
The Innocence Project was formed in 1989, three years after the first DNA exoneration in the US. Internationally, DNA evidence has been a game-changer, both in terms of how guilty individuals are identified and how innocent prisoners are freed. Here is a scientific method that can conclusively link an individual to a crime, or rule them out. Unsurprisingly, DNA evidence is a key tool in the Innocence Project’s arsenal. Yet for prisoners in Ireland, trying to access DNA testing to clear their name is much more complicated than in many other jurisdictions.
“We have a particular difficulty in Ireland,” Mathews says. “There is no statutory requirement to preserve evidence post-trial for further testing and then there is no statutory right to access evidence post-conviction for testing.”
Advances in DNA testing occur all the time. This means Irish prisoners who cannot automatically access biological evidence for retesting or for whom biological evidence has not been stored post-conviction face a major disadvantage. Mathews cites the hypothetical example where a sample that was identified as containing only the victim’s DNA at the original trial is later found, through more advanced testing, to contain another person’s profile.
To have DNA evidence re-tested, Irish prisoners need to first make a very strong case for their innocence. This can be a lengthy and onerous task. “It essentially means that when you launch your miscarriage-of-justice application, you have to have your entire case made and say, ‘the last thing I need is this piece of DNA evidence’,” Mathews says.
He argues that it should be the other way around. “In fact, DNA evidence is what you need to start to build the case to say that the other elements of the evidence need to be looked at in a different light.”
The Innocence Files sheds light not only on shortcomings in the legal system but also the devastating impact these can have on people’s lives. It is something Mathews has seen firsthand in Ireland: “We often meet people enduring mental illness because of what they have gone through. They have been shunned by their communities. The thing about criminal law, and in particular its operation for serious offences, is that it is the most censorial and stigmatising social system we have in our society.”
“The sense of exclusion that they feel, the sense of shame and embarrassment, the impact that it has on their ability to work, the impact that it has on their family relationships or friends and the community — the isolation is huge and ultimately that takes a very substantial toll on their health and their wellbeing and their physical health and mental health over many years.”
Mathews is keen to stress the important work done by the gardaí and the judicial system. In regard to policy and processes, specifically the situation with DNA testing, he emphasises the need for every criminal justice system to operate “at all times to convict only the guilty” while also being aware that “it can make mistakes and convict the innocent”. This is something, he says, that makes the safe storage of and access to biological evidence all the more important. “The [legal] system is made up of human beings and processes which inherently can have mistakes within them,” Mathews says,“and thus we should do what is necessary to ensure that when such a grave mistake happens that it is identified and it is remedied”.
For those helped by the Innocence Project in Ireland and beyond, or indeed for anyone concerned with justice, it is a sentiment that resonates.
1 In 1998, Texan John Nolley was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sharon McLane, who was found stabbed 57 times in her apartment. Much of the prosecution's case against him was based on the testimony of informers who claimed they heard him making incriminating statements. The reinvestigation of his case by the Innocence Project brought to light evidence that resulted in his release in 2016 and full exoneration two years later. In the aftermath, Texas legislatures passed laws regulating the use of jailhouse informant testimony, the strongest of their kind anywhere in the US.
2 In 2016, a Massachusetts court vacated charges against George Perrot for a 1985 sexual assault. The ruling marked the first time a US court had comprehensively reviewed incorrect testimony given by a FBI agent in relation to hair samples. The agent was judged to have overstated the hair samples' importance in linking Perrot to the crime scene. The Innocence Project estimates that inaccurate microscopic hair analysis contributes to about 20pc of the exonerated DNA cases in the US.
3 The stories of Mississippi men Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer feature in The Innocence Files. Both were imprisoned in the 90s, Brooks for the rape and murder of a three-year-old girl, Brewer for the murder of his girlfriend's three-year-old daughter. Brooks was sentenced to life and Brewer to death, until the Innocence Project proved the unreliability of the DNA evidence used to convict them. The project's work on their cases called into serious question the scientific validity of bite-mark evidence. Both were released in 2008.