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Why there's no peace at the heart of an Irish 'Making A Murderer'

After being convicted of a killing they did not commit, Dick Donnelly and Martin Conmey tell their story to Donal Lynch

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Lifelong friends Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly, who were framed for the murder of Una Lynskey in 1971, say they have suffered decades of torture. Photo: David Conachy

Lifelong friends Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly, who were framed for the murder of Una Lynskey in 1971, say they have suffered decades of torture. Photo: David Conachy

Lifelong friends Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly, who were framed for the murder of Una Lynskey in 1971, say they have suffered decades of torture. Photo: David Conachy

Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly are a pair of old timers, who share an easy rapport. Dick is confined to a wheelchair. Martin helps him navigate the ramps into a Dublin hotel, and relays the conversation into Dick's good ear.

They have known each other all their lives; just a couple of years separate them, they played pranks together as children and their families lived a few miles from each other south of Ratoath, Co Meath. Four decades ago, their lives were forever bound together by an unthinkable set of circumstances, which will be the subject of a powerful new documentary on TG4.

The story begins with the murder of a young woman, Una Lynskey (19). A memorial photo of her depicted a fresh-faced girl, dressed all in white, her brown beehive adorned by daisies. She had a boyfriend and a career in the civil service; her whole life was ahead of her. On October 12, 1971, Una was seen for the last time getting off the bus with her cousin Anne Gaughan.

The two women went home separately, and at first, when she failed to arrive for supper, Una's mother wondered if she had gone to Anne's house. Una was not there, and worries about her whereabouts rapidly escalated, and the gardai were called in. A week later, the Murder Squad was called in. Their efforts seemed focused on three young local men; Martin Conmey, Dick Donnelly and a friend of the two, Martin 'Marty' Kerrigan. Martin Kerrigan was just 19 at the time, while Martin Comney and Dick Donnelly were 20 and 23.

On the evening of October 25 the three men were visited by both local and murder squad gardai for the first time. They trio were at a dance the night before, and were feeling the effects of a late night when gardai called to speak to them about Una Lynskey's disappearance. Their visits to the three men continued for a number of weeks until their arrest in November. There, a major miscarriage of justice was set in train.

"They interrogated us in sessions," Dick Donnelly remembers. "Two would start interrogating you. When they were finished, two more took over. When they were finished, there would be another two. I was falling asleep in the chair. They did it through the night and into the morning. At one point I fell asleep and one of the detectives gave me a whack across the face that knocked me to the ground. I tell you, I wasn't long waking up then. That man, who did that, is dead now. He died of cancer. I didn't shed any tears over him."

The gardai who interrogated the men would later become notorious as The Heavy Gang. One of the main officers was John Courtney, then a detective sergeant. Over the years, there would be a series of allegations against Courtney and other gardai who worked with him. It would be claimed that suspects in custody were systemically abused to extract confessions.

Many of these cases relied solely on confessions for a prosecution. The same group of gardai was involved in investigating the 1976 Sallins train robbery, for which Nicky Kelly was convicted and subsequently pardoned. They also investigated the Kerry Babies case in 1983, in which a whole family confessed to complicity in a murder they could not possibly have committed.

They put unbearable pressure on Martin, Dick and Marty. "You have to understand how naive we were - not like kids today at all," Martin says. "We didn't feel like we were free to go," Dick adds. "Three days later we got to see a lawyer. They said we were free to go but they locked Marty up in a cell. They detained me under a bench."

Eventually Marty and Martin signed statements incriminating themselves. "To this day I live with the guilt of that," Martin explains. "How could I have been so weak? I felt so inadequate in myself. The detective told me 'they've dropped you in it now and to get out of here you'd better tell us what happened'. I thought to myself, they've made up a story to get out of there, so you'd better do the same. They told me if I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, I was going to Mountjoy. They said they were sending for my clothes and that I would never see my parents again." Marty Kerrigan's father was appalled when he visited his son. He found him curled up like a child in a corner of his cell, dressed only in his underwear. The youth told his father: "Daddy, I did nothing. I did not have anything to do with this."

As bad as this was, the gardai in the case also allowed the fact of the forced confessions to be leaked into the community. This set in chain a terrible set of events. Shots were fired over the youths' houses. Insults, such as "murdering b******s", were painted on the roads outside their homes. There were altercations between members of the extended families of those involved. On December 10, Una's body was found. A Dublin County Council workman noticed something buried beneath undergrowth in the Dublin mountains.

Thinking the pile was the remains of a sheep, he moved the covering with his shovel and revealed a human skull. Soon after this, nine days after Una's remains were found, Marty Kerrigan was bundled into a Mini. Sean and James Lynskey, brothers of Una, and their cousin, John Gaughan, were in the car. They drove Marty Kerrigan away to his death. The Lynskey brothers and Gaughan immediately gave themselves up and were tried and convicted before the cases of Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly went to court. The conviction of the Lynskeys and Gaughan had increased the pressure on gardai to secure a conviction in the cases of Donnelly and Conmey.

"We consoled and helped each other," Martin remembers. "Prison was terrible, slopping out every night. Everyone says they didn't do it in prison, so we were no different. I had pictures of home up on the wall. At night you might have a dream that you'd been away somewhere and you'd wake up and it wouldn't be true. Most nights I cried myself to sleep. I lived in hope that the person who had done it would eventually be caught or that something would crop up that would prove my innocence."

The faces of the gardai in court still stay with Martin Conmey: "I saw the gardai taking the Bible on the stand, swearing there was never a finger laid on him [Conmey]. They said he [Conmey] seemed fine and relaxed."

Both men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. Hearing the verdicts was "a nightmare", Conmey recalls. "You don't believe it's happening. It was unreal. Very hard to accept. I was in shock."

Seven months later Dick Donnelly's conviction was overturned on appeal. "I felt my lawyer was not doing enough, he was going through the motions," Conmey says. "He didn't really let me explain the whole thing on the stand. I think he was worried that, if I went into too much detail, the other side might use it. When Dick got out I was like, why not me?"

In a little over two years Conmey was released but the pall of being labelled a killer hung over him all his life. Both he and Dick worked in the building trade and both married - Dick to Marty's sister Anne - but their time in prison and the stigma of being labelled a killer haunted Martin Conmey. "When I'd have drink in me I'd get aggressive, thinking people were talking about me," he says. "We never got counselling or anything like that. My parents were quiet people, they didn't talk about it much. I kind of had to deal with it myself. I used to spell my name different when I was looking for a job. In one job in Finglas he let me and Dick go when he found out our names."

It was the release of Gerry Conlon, of the Guildford Four, in 1989, that convinced Martin Conmey that he should try to seek justice for himself. He says he began crying when Conlon made his famous appearance on the steps of the Old Bailey with his two sisters. Conmey hired a private investigator to try to uncover new evidence and sought out the help of former Taoiseach John Bruton, who raised the case in the Dail. A long legal struggle included a Court of Appeal hearing in 2010 and culminated in the award of a certificate for a miscarriage of justice in 2014. "I felt that my case was a vindication for myself but also, really, for Marty," Martin Conmey says.

"There are still people out there who must think that he must have done something to be killed like that. I hope they know now, he really didn't. He was only 19 years of age." Conmey received an official apology and a compensation figure which made him "comfortable enough" for life. Donnelly never received an apology or compensation.

Both men are highly aware of the grief that Una Lynskey's family suffered - her real killer was never held to account - and of the injustice they suffered. "This thing tore a few families apart," Conmey says. "I felt so weak, I felt making the sion caused everything, Marty's death included. It changed our lives forever. I'm still on medication, trying to go off it."

After the miscarriage of justice certificate that was issued in 2014, there was talk of a public inquiry into the events surrounded Conmey's case, but with the intervening years that prospect has now likely faded.

He did, however, have the satisfaction, of coming face-to-face, one last time, with one of the gardai who interrogated him in Trim.

"He was an old man then, 85 years of age, still denying everything," Conmey remembers. "I tried to catch his eye, but he wouldn't look at me. He knew it was over."

Martin Conmey's testimony is episode one of the new eight-week TG4 documentary series 'Finne' which begins this Wednesday, at 9.30pm.

Sunday Independent