Murder Mystery and My Family, the BBC1 documentary series which revisits criminal cases to highlight historical wrongs, has rewritten Irish history for the second time in a matter of a few years.
In March 2018, the 1895 case of the ill-fated John Twiss of Castleisland featured in series one of the programme, and Crown Court Judge David Radford found his conviction unsafe.
Since then, an application has been made to the Irish government for a presidential pardon of John Twiss, and a decision is awaited.
The Case of Poff and Barrett
It is now certain that the same procedure for pardon will apply to another case of gross injustice in Castleisland, that of Kerrymen Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, both hanged in Tralee prison in 1883 for the murder of Thomas Browne at Dromultan.
The case featured recently in series five of the documentary, screened on BBC1 on July 9th 2021.
Once again, barristers Sasha Wass QC for the prosecution and Jeremy Dein QC for the defence looked at every aspect of the case to determine if a miscarriage of justice may have occurred.
Tomo Burke and Michael Sugrue
In the programme, Tomo Burke and Michael Sugrue, great grandsons of Sylvester Poff, spoke movingly about their great grandfather.
“A grave injustice was committed to Sylvester and his family and his grandchildren as well,’ said Tomo.
“We hope to come to the point we can overturn the verdict and have their good names restored to Poff and Barrett and not to have them buried as murderers,” said Michael.
Was He Capable Of Murder?
Poff, like so many at the time, had a grievance against land owners, but the question asked, was he capable of murder?
The barristers went over the evidence, and consulted social historian, Dr. Sean Lucey to help put the case in context, and forensic firearms expert, Mark Mastaglio, who identified the murder weapon – a revolver, which was never found.
The barristers also consulted historian, Dr. Gemma Clark, to help understand the politics of the court system which could ‘get in the way of justice.’
Chaotic Evidence of Bridget Brosnan
It became clear very early in the programme that the case stood or fell on the evidence of one witness, Bridget Brosnan. ‘Quite frankly,’ said Jeremy Dein, ‘how it stood and didn’t fall I do not know because it was just all over the place.’
Bridget Brosnan, who claimed to have seen Poff and Barrett going into the field at Dromultan where Browne was shot, changed her story a number of times, about the number of men seen and how they were dressed.
Inconsistent With Evidence
On one occasion she said the killers were wearing long black coats, and on another ordinary clothes. ‘The only identifying feature which is their clothing is inconsistent with the evidence of the schoolboys who were quite clear that the two gunmen had long black clothing. This is the sort of evidence which would result in a case today being stopped before it ever got to a jury,” said Ms. Wass.
The barristers also remarked on the dog which Poff had with him that day, which seems to have had little bearing on the case, and the ‘evidence’ of Mary Lyons whose testimony was allowed at the second trial.
Hearsay Evidence Allowed
Jeremy described this as ‘a serious error by the judge in allowing hearsay evidence.’ One of the scenes was filmed at the former Tralee prison, where the bodies of Poff and Barrett were hastily buried in 1883.
‘This was a private hanging, no press, no public, nobody except the authorities allowed in. The least they could have done was given them back to their families for a proper christian burial, the very least, and they didn’t even do that, left here to rot,” said Michael Sugrue of the treatment the men received even after their deaths.
Memorial in Dromultan
Tomo and Michael were also filmed at the memorial to Poff and Barrett at Dromultan, where they paid tribute to their ancestor:
“Sylvester, you were my great grandfather and I’m very proud of you, you never deviated from your first statement that you and your first cousin James Barrett were innocent victims,” said Tomo.
“Sylvester, you were hanged in the wrong, and your family suffered great injustice, great hardship because of that, I don’t know if I would have been able to be as dignified and as honourable as you were on the day they hanged you in Tralee. God Bless,” said Michael.
Judgement by Video Link
Due to travel restrictions, the judgement was delivered to Tomo and Michael by video link.
The barristers went before Judge Radford and tore apart the evidence of Bridget Brosnan which was found to be riddled with inconsistency.
They pointed out that a case as this, were it to appear in a court today, a trial judge would be compelled to stop it before it ever got to a jury and on that basis, it cannot possibly be argued that the conviction of Poff and Barrett is safe.
Judge Radford returned the verdict: The evidence relied on by the prosecution in the trial and retrial did not, it must be made clear, include any forensic, firearm or admissible confession evidence, no evidence of pre-existing enmity felt towards Mr. Browne by Sylvester Poff was adduced, Mr Poff did not have a bad character, or propensity to use violence or to own or to use the sort of handgun which it was alleged he used to murder Mr. Browne.
Wholly Unsustainable and Unsafe
It follows that Bridget Brosnan’s credibility was therefore absolutely central and key to the success of the case – as both counsel have eloquently set out.
Bridget Brosnan’s evidence was inconsistent and unreliable for the different reasons identified.
Judge Radford dismissed the evidence of Mary Lyons as ‘prejudicial, inadmissible hearsay’ and had no doubt at all that the conviction of murder was ‘wholly unsustainable and unsafe.’
Over the Moon at Verdict
Tomo and Michael were ‘over the moon’ with the verdict.
“If our granny was here she’d be over two moons – all we’ve been hoping for all these years has finally come to pass,” Tomo said.
Castleisland District Heritage will now make a case for the presidential pardon of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.
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