Dennis Hutchings: Ex-soldier on trial over Troubles shooting dies

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Image source, PA Media
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Dennis Hutchings, 80, denied attempting to murder and cause grievous bodily harm to John Pat Cunningham

An ex-soldier has died while on trial over a fatal shooting during Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Dennis Hutchings, 80, denied attempting to murder and cause grievous bodily harm to John Pat Cunningham.

Mr Hutchings' trial was adjourned for three weeks due to illness and the court heard on Monday that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

The non-jury trial had been sitting at Belfast Crown Court for three days a week to allow Mr Hutchings, who had been suffering from kidney disease, to receive dialysis treatment.

Mr Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, was an ex-member of the Life Guards regiment.

He also suffered from heart failure and fluid on the lung. He died in the Mater Hospital in Belfast on Monday afternoon.

His death was confirmed by an Army veterans' group on behalf of his family.

Dennis Hutchings' supporters had made an issue of his age and ill-health during a long campaign against his prosecution.

Legal attempts to have his case thrown out failed before it reached trial stage.

His death will very likely reopen arguments around legacy prosecutions.

The government is proposing to end all future investigations and court cases related to Troubles incidents prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Part of its reasoning is to protect veterans.

This development leaves just one other veteran facing trial, David Holden, who is accused of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in 1988.

All other recent cases involving former soldiers have collapsed.

Unionist politicians have criticised the decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there were "serious questions around those who made the decision that Dennis should stand trial once more".

"Whilst understanding the desire of the Cunningham family for justice, we have consistently challenged those in legal authority who insisted that Dennis stand trial again.

"He was an 80-year-old veteran, in ill-health on dialysis and there was a lack of compelling new evidence.

"This is a sad indictment on those who want to rewrite history, but also demands serious questions of the Public Prosecution Service about how this trial was deemed to be in the public interest."

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
John Pat Cunningham was 27 at the time of his death but had a mental age of between six and 10

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said the decision by the Public Prosecution Service to proceed with a trial given Mr Hutchings' ill-health demanded an independent review.

"The questions must be asked, did this trial hasten Mr Hutchings' death and did it meet the evidential and public interest tests?" he said.

"Regrettably that will be too late for the Hutchings family and will be of little comfort to them at this time."

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister said the "needless dragging of an 80-year-old soldier through the courts has had a very sad end".

"The strain on this man was cruel, with him requiring regular dialysis, while being brought to Belfast to face a trial of dubious provenance," he said.

The Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew said she was aware of a grieving family following the death of Mr Hutchings, but the Cunningham family also continued to grieve.

"Let's remember that grief knows no bounds," she tweeted.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the legacy proposals would allow Northern Ireland to "draw a line under the Troubles".

The plans, which are opposed by NI political parties and victims organisations, include an end to all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the conflict.

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