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Kevin Cullen

In the shadow of a gunman

Ciaran “Kiwi” Conneely, on Castle Island, shortly before his death in 2011.

Ciaran Conneely left Boston the same way he entered it: misunderstood.

In Dorchester, where he made his home and where he died on a sidewalk on an Indian Summer’s night, most of the locals couldn’t understand him, his accent as thick as the rocky, russet land he left behind on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.

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One day, at the Eire Pub in Adams Corner, a guy laughed and patted Ciaran Conneely on the back after being unable to make heads or tails of his name.

“We’ll just call you Kiwi,” the guy said, and the nickname stuck.

So did Kiwi, who became a fixture in the Dorchester neighborhood. Like a lot of young Irish immigrants, he worked construction, and he worked hard. He played hard, too, and was known to frequent the Eire and The Bunker, the subterranean bar at the Old Dorchester Post.

On a warm October night in 2011, Kiwi left The Bunker and walked back up the hill on Adams Street after a day of craic and pints at the Irish Festival. He was about to enter his apartment building on Nahant Avenue when he was confronted by a small person holding a big gun.

“Give it up,” the gunman allegedly hissed.

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Kiwi had been robbed weeks before, by a guy who swung wildly at him with a razor. I knew Kiwi, and I’m guessing he protested at having to give up his hard-earned cash, again, to some shiftless thug. Whatever he said, we’ll never know. But according to a witness who testified in Suffolk Superior Court this week, the gunman was as confused as that guy at the Eire who bestowed Kiwi’s nickname.

“I couldn’t understand him,” the alleged gunman told the witness.

“I’m gonna count it down,” the alleged gunman snarled, pointing the gun at Kiwi, who swayed unsteadily in the moonlight. “Five, four, three, two, one.”

And then the gunman pulled the trigger. The bullet bounced off Kiwi’s rib, punctured a lung, and ripped through his left ventricle before settling into the soft tissue of his lower back. Kiwi fell, hitting his face on the bumper of a pickup truck, before settling, on his back, dead on the sidewalk, just a few yards from his front door. He was 36. The gunman ran off, leaving behind a wad of cash in Kiwi’s pocket.

Suffolk County prosecutor Ian Polumbaum spent the last week trying to convince a jury that the gunman was a Dorchester kid named John Graham, who was 16 years old when he allegedly shot Kiwi Conneely.

But despite some compelling testimony and circumstantial evidence, it was always going to be a hard sell. They never found the weapon. There wasn’t any forensic evidence tying Graham to the scene, just testimony from those who say he confessed to the killing.

Bob Sheketoff, a good guy and a good lawyer, gave a robust defense. He told the jury they could not possibly believe Joel Winslow, Graham’s mentor, who testified against Graham. Sheketoff insisted Winslow was the getaway driver in Kiwi Conneely’s killing. And there was considerable evidence, including a video, that suggested Winslow was driving a Lexus seen near the homicide scene.

Sheketoff compared the case to Cain and Abel, the implication being that the older Joel Winslow figuratively buried his own figurative, younger brother, John Graham.

But this case was more about sisters, about the sister who testified as a prosecution witness against her own brother, and the two sisters who sat in the courtroom, bearing witness for the brother they loved and grew up with on a small, beautiful island in Ireland.

Tenesia Graham testified her little brother came to her after Kiwi was killed and blurted, “I was with Joel and I shot someone.”

Noting that Tenesia Graham had a daughter with Joel Winslow, Sheketoff told the jury she had a motive to protect him. She was much closer to Winslow than her own brother.

But Ian Polumbaum, the prosecutor, asked the jury the most salient question: Why would a big sister frame her little brother? Besides, he said, she didn’t protect Winslow. Instead, she implicated him, along with her brother.

In the end, the jury sided with Bob Sheketoff’s version of events, maybe because they thought some of the prosecution’s witnesses should be prosecuted.

Kiwi Conneely’s sisters, Deirdre and Mary Ann, couldn’t look at the autopsy photos put up on the courtroom screen. It was even harder for them to look at the back of John Graham’s head when he was found not guilty Wednesday of the killing of their brother.

There was solace for them in that, as an ancillary part of the murder trial, Graham was convicted of shooting two Vietnamese kids 20 days after Kiwi Conneely fell dead. Ballistics tests showed the same gun that killed Kiwi wounded the two Vietnamese guys.

And so, John Graham faces 20 years or more when he is sentenced on May 1.

Kiwi Conneely’s sisters, meanwhile, had the hardest task of all. They had to make that phone call back home, to tell their mother what happened.

A few hours after the verdict, Tommy Ashe sat at the bar at The Bunker, nursing a Coors Light, his head down. They call Tommy Ashe the Quiet Man because he is not a big talker. He works hard, as his good friend Kiwi did.

And as he sat there, in the country he adopted and the country he loves, Tommy Ashe shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“There’s law in America,” Tommy Ashe said. “But there’s no justice.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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