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Irish man found guilty of 'cold case' murder by unanimous jury verdict

John Joseph Malone
John Joseph Malone

A 'cold case' investigation has solved a 30-year-old murder after a jury returned a guilty verdict against a man for strangling an elderly woman to death before setting her house on fire.

John Joseph Malone (53), of Newpark, Kilkenny City was found guilty today of the murder of 69-year-old Ann 'Nancy' Smyth on September 11, 1987 at her home on Wolfe Tone Street, Kilkenny.

The Central Criminal Court jury of seven men and five women returned their unanimous verdict after three hours and 26 minutes of deliberating. The foreman of the jury confirmed the verdict was unanimous.

Malone, who was on bail when the trial began, had his bail revoked last week after he was seen shouting abuse at the home of 81-year-old Eileen Kelly days before she was due to give evidence against him.

After the guilty verdict was revealed, Justice Patrick McCarthy delayed sentencing to allow Ms Smyth's family to make a statement to the court. Awaiting his sentence, Malone wept and was comforted by members of his family.

When the court resumed Desmond Murphy, a nephew of the deceased, choked back tears to tell the court: "What happened to Nancy on that night had a major effect on all members of our family." He said it was wonderful to get to this moment. "Closure is there," he said.

Justice Patrick McCarthy then asked Malone to stand and he told him: "The law prescribes only one sentence and that is imprisonment for life. I hereby impose that sentence upon you." Thanking the jurors, he exempted them from further service for ten years.

The investigation into Ms Smyth's death received a boost in 2012 when, following an appeal for information that was recommended by the Serious Crime Review Team, several witnesses came forward. Each of them told gardai that Malone, the chief suspect, had confessed to Nancy Smyth's murder.

Ann 'Nancy' Smyth lived with her pet Labrador on Wolfe Tone St in Kilkenny. In 1987, Ann Lahart was a bartender in a pub on John Street where Nancy was a regular. Ms Lahart described her as a "lovely person", quiet in her own way but happy to chat with those she knew. "She was partial to her rum and blackcurrant and she also liked her whiskey lemonade," she told the court.

On the night she died, Nancy called to the pub at around nine o'clock and was in "great form". She had several drinks and bought some cigarettes before Ms Lahart's father dropped her the short distance home and saw her safely into her hallway.

On the same night, Malone was drinking in another pub in Kilkenny City and left at around midnight. Instead of going home, he walked to Wolfe Tone Street where he was seen by several witnesses acting suspiciously. One neighbour, Geraldine Brennan, heard him banging on Ms Smyth's door and window and shouting: "Let me into the fucking house. I just want to fucking talk to you."

At one stage he said: "I'll fucking get you." Ms Brennan went outside and saw Malone kick Nancy's door, bang her window and slam her gate. She described him as "angry and agitated".

In the early hours of the morning of September 11, hours after Malone was heard threatening Ms Smyth, smoke was seen coming from Ms Smyth's home. When emergency services arrived, they found the 69-year-old and her Labrador dead inside the burning house.

A pathologist's report showed that she had died from strangulation before the fire was lit. She had also suffered a bruise to her scalp which could have been caused by a blow or by falling backwards against something hard. Further trauma to her mouth suggested she had been struck or had a hand held over her face. Gardai started a murder investigation.

Much of the witness evidence heard in the trial was gathered in 1987 and Malone was arrested. When questioned, he initially denied going to Ms Smyth's house but later admitted he went there and had an argument with her. However, he denied attacking her or setting her house on fire.

With no forensic evidence, gardai could proceed no further. Then, in 2012 gardai appealed for information and witnesses came forward. A number of those witnesses were members of a Presbyterian Bible group which Malone would join from time to time.

Jude Curran told the court that Malone came to his house months after Nancy's death. He said: "I was reading the Bible and John Joe came in and just said to me: ‘Jude, if somebody murdered someone, would God forgive them?’"

A few months later, Malone came to him again. "He just said to me that he couldn’t make out how forensics says that Mrs Smyth was strangled," he said. "He had told me that he had argued with her and that he pushed her and she fell," he continued, adding that Mr Malone had told him she had banged her head off a stone.

"(He said) that he brought her in, sat her down and she died, and that he set fire to the house," he said.

Billy Patterson, another member of the Bible group, said Malone once told him that he was considering becoming a Christian. Mr Patterson said he asked what would stop him, and that the accused replied that he’d done something. He said he asked Malone if what he had done had to do with ‘the old woman’.

"He said yes, and I said to him, ‘Did you do it?’ and he said yes."

The court also heard from the accused man's brother, Barney Malone, who said John Joe had confessed to him one night about ten years ago. Barney's wife, Ann Malone, said the accused had once threatened her, saying he would burn her house down, as he had done to Nancy Smyth.

81-year-old Eileen Kelly also took the stand to reveal that a few months after Nancy was killed, she confronted him and he told her it was an accident. She said Malone told her he had argued with Nancy and she told him to go away and accused his brother of having robbed her in a pub. She said he told her that he caught Ms Smyth, shoved her in the door and squeezed her too tight.

Eoin Reynolds