Barkeep wins his day in court

Sean O'Cealleagh seeks to clear name after IRA-linked conviction.

By Greg Mellen
Staff writer

SAN PEDRO -- Sean O'Cealleagh will get his day and his say in court American court.

The popular Seal Beach bartender from Northern Ireland, who gained permanent resident status in 2001, faces deportation for his conviction in a controversial trial in Northern Ireland for aiding and abetting in the brutal killing of two plainclothes British soldiers.

On Tuesday he won the right to have a chance to clear his name.

At a preliminary hearing, Federal Administrative Judge Rose Peters agreed to schedule an evidentiary hearing April 20 to 22, when O'Cealleagh and his lawyers will argue that the 35-year- old father of a 3-year-old son was the victim of a political conviction.

O'Cealleagh (pronounced O'Kelly) spells his name in the traditional Gaelic. He is referred to as Sean Kelly on official British documents.

As O'Cealleagh sat in his blue prison jumpsuit inside the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service Processing Center on Terminal Island, he looked over his shoulder at his wife and three friends on hand to lend emotional support.

He joked and tried to laugh, but he looked close to tears just before a guard told him to turn around.

While O'Cealleagh's wife, Geraldine, wept when she learned her husband would be jailed for another four weeks, three supporters who waited in the drizzle outside were heartened by the news.

"I hope this will exonerate him and allow him to get his life back in order,' said Gene Wagner, a neighbor from Westminster.

"This is a success story. This isn't bad,' said Brian Kyle, owner of O'Malley's where O'Cealleagh works, of his employee getting the chance to clear his name.

Geraldine declined to comment.

"A great victory'

Co-counsel John Farrell called the decision "a great victory,' before co-counsel Jim Byrne urged caution.

"What happens is his case will be looked on by an American judge under American law,' said Byrne, who added he will try to prove that the British courts either made a mistake or that the prosecution was political.

"What we'll try to do is prove that a man who made a life for himself, who's married, has a wife, a child and a home can continue to live here,' Byrne said. "This country gave him the opportunity Northern Ireland never gave him.'

Farrell said the chance for O'Cealleagh to have his case reviewed in an American court is "huge' because many of the controversial elements used against him under British law won't apply.

At the evidentiary hearing, the defense will be able to present declarations from Ireland that will be accepted as testimony and the government will be given the opportunity to refute the evidence. The prosecution will also present certified original documents pertaining to the conviction that were not available Tuesday.

O'Cealleagh has been in custody since Feb. 25 when he was arrested on a plane at Los Angeles International Airport upon his return from a trip to Ireland to see family.

Moral turpitude

O'Cealleagh is considered inadmissible to the United States because of his conviction on a crime of moral turpitude, according to Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Although there is no specific formula for moral turpitude, people are denied entry to the United States if they have been convicted of such crimes as murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, arson, bribery, alien smuggling and perjury. Crimes not involving moral turpitude include simple assault without a weapon, vagrancy, carrying a concealed weapon, tax evasion and possession of narcotics, and these are not an automatic barrier to enter the United States.

O'Cealleagh was one of three men, later dubbed the Casement Three, found guilty of aiding and abetting in the beating and subsequent shooting deaths by an Irish Republican Army gunman of British corporals Derek Wood and David Howes at a Republican funeral proceeding in March 1988.

Period of unrest

The killings of the soldiers came at a particularly incendiary time in Northern Ireland's history. Earlier in the month, three unarmed IRA members were killed by British Special Air Service (SAS) troops on Gibraltar. At the funeral for those three, loyalist Michael Stone attacked mourners with grenades and guns, killing three more and injuring 68.

At the funeral of one of those three, Kevin Brady, a reputed member of the provisional wing of the IRA, Wood and Howes stumbled into the procession. As they tried to back out, the two soldiers, later found to be connected to the same unit that carried out the Gibraltar killings, were surrounded by mourners. It was later claimed they feared another loyalist attack. Wood fired his gun as he was pulled from the car.

The two were beaten and dragged away for the funeral procession into Casement Park. They were later thrown in a cab, taken to an area called Penny Lane and shot dead. The IRA later claimed responsibility for the killing.

O'Cealleagh, whose lawyers say was merely returning from babysitting and wasn't in the procession, was allegedly caught on tape participating in the beating and dragging of Wood to Casement Park. His lawyers deny this and say video footage shot from a news helicopter is unreliable.

After the killings, more than 200 people were rounded up by the police and eventually more than 12 were sentenced to more than 300 years.

"You have to understand that everyone 14 and above was picked up in those days,' said Kyle.

Nonjury courts

O'Cealleagh, along with Patrick Kane and Michael Timmons in separate trials, was convicted in the nonjury Diplock courts, which were used in terrorist and certain political cases. The system, adopted in 1973 as part of the Emergency Provision Act, was created due to the belief juries would be intimidated by paramilitary groups. The system has been derided by numerous human rights groups worldwide for its lower standards of admissibility for confessions and police statements and can use a suspect's silence as an inference of complicity.

O'Cealleagh did not testify in his original trial and, according to the Republican News, Judge Carswell, "drawing adverse inference from the defendant's decision not to testify in court, secured the conviction.'

O'Cealleagh spent 8 1/2 years in Long Kesh, the infamous "Maze,' where political prisoners were held. He was released in 1998 and soon after emigrated to the U.S.

Although he was released as a political prisoner, O'Cealleagh was never cleared of the crime.

Kyle held a fund-raiser at O'Malley's Sunday to help pay O'Cealleagh's legal expenses. He said hundreds attended and $7,500 was raised.

"We're not trying to make a political statement,' Byrne said, "we're trying to keep a family together.'

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