Trial of Army veteran over 1974 Northern Ireland shooting is postponed

Trial of Army veteran Dennis Hutchings over 1974 Northern Ireland shooting is postponed due to 78-year-old’s ill health as coronavirus outbreak spreads

  • Dennis Hutchings, 78, is accused of murdering John Pat Cunningham in 1974
  • Hutchings, who has kidney failure and heart disease, was due to stand trial the 9th March but has the trial has been postponed due to his worsening ill health
  • Hutchings has been cleared of wrongdoing twice and has campaigned against the prosecution of British Army veterans for historical alleged offences

The controversial trial of an Army veteran over a fatal shooting during the Northern Ireland Troubles has been postponed due to the ill-health of the accused.

Dennis Hutchings, 78, was due to be at Belfast Crown Court on Monday morning for the opening day of his trial.

Mr Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, a former member of the Life Guards regiment, has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old man with learning difficulties, was shot in the back as he ran away from an Army patrol near Benburb.

Former British soldier Dennis Hutchings, (pictured) who has been charged over the fatal 1974 shooting of a man in Northern Ireland, took part in a protest in 2017 to call for an end to prosecutions of veterans who served during the Troubles

The adjournment comes as he receives medical treatment for a chest infection and amid his concerns about being susceptible to contracting coronavirus. 

Mr Hutchings, who is also currently on dialysis for renal failure, is facing charges of attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Solicitor Niall Murphy, who represents the Cunningham family, said proceedings had been adjourned after an application was made by Mr Hutchings’ lawyers.

Mr Murphy said: ‘The application was premised on a medical report from his consultant.’ 

Mr Hutchings told the press that his consultant had advised him he was ‘unfit to travel’.

He said: ‘I am on antibiotics for a chest infection, I am on dialysis, there is coronavirus floating about – at my age and with problems, if I caught it I’d probably die from it.’ 

A review hearing will take place at Belfast Crown Court next week to consider how to process with the case at a later date.

Mr Cunningham’s nephew Charlie Agnew questioned the decision to adjourn.

‘Will all the courts be closed next week? Are all trials to stop?’ he asked, describing the timing of the application as ‘lamentable’.

‘We are severely disappointed that this trial will not now commence after so many years of patient waiting.’

Great-grandfather Dennis Hutchings has long campaigned against the prosecution of British Army veterans. Seen here in 2019 at a ‘rolling thunder’ biker protest

But critics claim his case is proof of a ‘witch-hunt’ against soldiers who served during the Troubles. 

The former corporal major has already been cleared twice over the events which took place in the mid-1970s. 

Despite no fresh evidence, no witnesses and no new forensic leads, the retired soldier has been accused again of attempted murder. 

Last month, Mr Hutchings launched a crowdfunding campaign to help him fight the charges. 

Mr Hutchings, from Cornwall, said: ‘I spent 26 years serving my country and now I am being hung out to dry like a common criminal. 

A family member holds a photo of John Pat Cunningham at a press conference in Belfast after his family received an apology from the government

‘I want to put the Government in a position where they make good on their promise to protect veterans from these ludicrous witch-hunts so no one else is thrown to the wolves.

‘It is disgusting. I’ve spent five years’ on bail when I’m a sick man. And still they’ve come up with no new evidence. The politicians have got to get off their backsides and get on with looking after ex-soldiers.’

In a legal letter, he has warned Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith that he will bring a Judicial Review on the grounds that British veterans are suffering ‘discriminatory treatment’ by the criminal justice system.

Although 90 per cent of the 3,720 killings in Northern Ireland were at the hands of terrorists, police investigations have focused on the actions of British forces. 

Veteran Dennis Hutchings arrives at the Supreme Court, London, for his challenge against the decision to hold his trial over an incident in Northern Ireland during the Troubles without a jury

Veterans who served at the height of the IRA’s terror campaign are 54 times more likely to face prosecution than Republican paramilitaries, according to the letter.

Mr Hutchings’ lawyers say this contravenes Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a fair trial.  

In June 1974, Mr Hutchings was leading a patrol of four soldiers in English, County Tyrone, when they came across an IRA unit moving weapons ahead of an attack.

He challenged the group of about ten and a firefight broke out. Four men were arrested and later convicted of terrorist offences, while the rest fled.

Members of the Justice for NI Veterans at the Supreme Court in London when Mr Hutchings appeal trial by judge on Bloody Sunday prosecution decision day took place on 19.03.19

Two days later, the troops carried out a search of the area to track down the missing Republicans and came across Mr Cunningham, who they believed was an armed IRA suspect, near the village of Benburb.

As he ran away, members of the patrol opened fire, killing him. It later emerged the victim was an innocent member of the public who had the mental age of a child between six and ten.

Mr Hutchings was investigated and cleared at the time and the case was closed once again after a review in 2011.

But a legacy unit set up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested him at his home in Cornwall in April 2015.

To contribute to Mr Hutchings’ campaign visit the webpage here 

 

 

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