Irish Legal Heritage: The couple facing execution

On 9 June 1976, Marie and Noel Murray were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

In September 1975, Garda Michael Reynolds was fatally shot in the head while chasing two men and a woman who had robbed the Bank of Ireland in Killester at gunpoint. The Murrays were arrested and charged with the murder alongside Ronan Stenson.

The Murrays were tried together in the Special Criminal Court for the capital murder of a member of the Garda Síochána. The Court heard that Garda Reynolds was off-duty and driving with his wife and daughter when he decided to follow the car in which the Murrays were escaping from the robbery. He continued to chase them on foot when they abandoned the car, and was shot in the head by Marie Murray.

The fact that Garda Reynolds was off-duty and plain-clothed at the time of his death was an important factor in the case, as under section 1(1)(b)(i) of the Criminal Justice Act 1964, capital murder was defined as the “murder of a member of the Garda Síochána acting in the course of his duty”. As such, it was not clear that the Murrays had the mens rea to kill a member of the Gardaí acting in the course of his duty as Garda Reynolds satisfied neither of those conditions at the time of his death. Nevertheless, Mr Justice Denis Pringle found the Murrays guilty of capital murder, and sentenced them both to death.

In November 1976, the Murrays were granted leave to appeal the decision, with the Supreme Court finding that the case involved a point of law of exceptional public importance: whether the onus was on the prosecution to prove that the accused knew the victim was a member of the Garda Síochána; and that he was acting in the course of his duty. Since the Special Criminal Court had failed to inquire into the necessary mens rea of the offence, the Supreme Court ordered the re-trial of Marie and substituted Noel’s verdict for one of murder under Section 3(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1964. Marie was subsequently found guilty of murder, resulting in both Noel and Marie’s death sentences being commuted to life sentences.

Although no-one had been executed by the State since Michael Manning was hanged in 1954, the death penalty stayed on the statute books in Ireland until it was eventually abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1990.

Seosamh Gráinséir

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