THE IRISH State has been successful in prosecuting a case against 74-year-old Noel Long for murder. He has been found guilty of murdering Nora Sheehan, a mother of three from Cork, 42 years ago. The jury unanimously accepted the prosecution’s case that Long was responsible for her death in June 1981.
Long had pleaded not guilty to the murder.
Nora Sheehan’s body was found six days after she went missing in 1981. Her remains were found by forestry workers in the Shippool Woods, Inishannon on June 12, 1981. She had last been seen alive outside the South Infirmary Hospital, Cork, at 9:45 pm on 6 June 1981. Her death, therefore, occurred between those two dates — but the exact time could not be ascertained, according to expert witnesses.
The forty two years that has elapsed until this year’s trial is the longest period in Irish legal history between a crime and conviction.
During the trial, evidence revealed that DNA found on Mrs. Sheehan’s body matched DNA taken from Long’s clothing in 2021. Fibres and paint fragments from Long’s car also matched those found on the victim’s clothing. The prosecution argued that Long had brutally assaulted and sexually assaulted Mrs. Sheehan before killing her.
The jury rejected Long’s defence, which claimed that the State had failed to prove the intent required for murder. Instead, they delivered a unanimous verdict of guilty after five hours and 32 minutes of deliberation.
Long, a former British army soldier, has a record of violence. During sentencing it was revealed that he had a substantial record of violence, including four convictions in Britain and 27 convictions in Ireland.
He served 12 months in prison in Limerick in 1972 for a crime that was then classified as “assault with intent to ravish”.
Mr Justice McDermott has now handed down the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment to Long.
The 1981 investigation
The original investigation into Mrs Sheehan’s death was hampered by the death of the investigating pathologist Dr Robert Dermot Coakley who had carried out the post-mortem examination. He died just weeks after the investigation began, on June 16, 1981 at the age of 55.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) at the time decided the pathologist’s sudden death was an insurmountable obstacle to any hopes of a successful prosecution of Long. He had been charged with murder in July 1981, and was subsequently released on bail. Subsequently the case against him was not pursued.
In 2008, the Serious Crime Review squad of An Garda Síochána based in Bandon, Co. Cork, began a review of the case. As the evidence mounted up they presented their case to the DPP and it was decided to prosecute Noel Long.
At the opening of the new trial Brendan Grehan SC, counsel for the State, said that the prosecution could not say precisely how Mrs Sheehan died, but it was the State’s case that she met her death by means of foul play.
Dr Marie Cassidy, a Glasgow-born medical scientist who was Ireland’s State Pathologist from 2004-2018, was called by the defence legal team to give testimony. She agreed with prosecution lawyers that death from asphyxia by one of two methods could neither be proved nor disproved. But she testified that it could not be excluded that Mrs Sheehan had suffered a heart attack during an assault or that she could have been suffocated by her head being pressed into a bed or pillow.
Ms Cassidy told the court that in her expert opinion it appeared that in all probability Mrs Sheehan had died at another location and that her dead body had been transported to a location in Shippool Woods.
In victim impact statements the Sheehan family said that the verdict brought some measure of closure. They had suffered for 42 years with pain, anxiety, and stress. Nora was remembered as a much-loved mother and sister, and her death had a profound impact on her family, with her father passing away just four years after she went missing.
The family described the immense pain and heartache they had endured throughout the decades. They expressed their regret that Nora never got to meet her seven grandchildren. Her sons were bereft at the loss of their mother.
After the case, Superintendent Joe Moore from Macroom said: “Nora Sheehan left her home on the 6th of June 1981 and her body was located at Shippool, Inishannon on the 12th of June 1981. He said that a murder investigation had commenced on that date and had concluded that day in August 2023.
He said the Serious Crime Review team had instigated a full review of this case in 2008 and that the current investigation team based in Bandon, Co. Cork had brought it to a point where a decision was made to prosecute.
Superintendent Moore added: “This case proves that historical crime can be brought to a successful conclusion, even after a prolonged period.”