Northern Ireland news

PPS: `Challenging and complex Dennis Hutchings case was taken impartially and independently'

Dennis Hutchings arriving at court in Belfast at the start of the trial. Picture by Mal McCann

THERE have been calls for an independent review of the decision to prosecute former British soldier Dennis Hutchings over a Troubles' shooting after he died while on trial.

The 80-year-old had denied the 1974 attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham (27) who was shot in the back as he ran from an army patrol in Co Tyrone.

Public Proscution Service (PPS) deputy director Michael Agnew insisted yesterday "where a charge is as serious as attempted murder, it will generally be in the public interest to prosecute", as he offered "our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Hutchings and acknowledge their painful loss".

"We can assure the public that all decision-making in this challenging and complex case was taken impartially and independently and fully in accordance with the PPS Code for Prosecutors," he said.

UUP leader Doug Beattie had called for the review, saying "the questions must be asked, did this trial hasten Mr Hutchings' death and did it meet the evidential and public interest tests?"

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there are "serious questions around those who made the decision that Dennis should stand trial once more" and "how this trial was deemed to be in the public interest".

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

TUV leader Jim Allister said "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 denounced the "needless dragging of an 80-year-old soldier through the courts".

Fromer DUP leader Arlene Foster said prosecutors "had the option to withdraw on the grounds of ill health but did not" and said there are "serious questions again for the PPS".

Mr Agnew said there had been "careful consideration of a wide range of issues, including the strength of evidence against him" in connection with the 1974 death of John Pat Cunningham.

Mr Agnew insisted the decision followed "an impartial and independent" assessment of whether there was a reasonable prospect of conviction and if it was in the public interest.

He pointed to High Court rulings there was "sufficient" evidence "and... the proceedings were not an abuse of process".

"The High Court has recently observed, in a separate case relating to a shooting in 1972, that risks arising from ill-health are commonplace in the criminal justice system and such risks are accommodated within the existing legal framework of criminal trials and the adoption of appropriate measures to mitigate risk."

The prosecutor said the PPS had supported "all measures put in place by the trial judge", including reduced sittings allow Mr Hutchings's treatment, an offer for him to attend remotely and "significant adjournments... to accommodate Mr Hutchings and allow him to travel".

"Our thoughts are also with the family of John Pat Cunningham who have waited for many decades in the hope of seeing due process take its course," he said.

"... They, like so many other families who have lost loved one throughout the Troubles, continue to endure pain and deep disappointment over the absence of a criminal justice outcome in their case."

Sinn Féin Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew said she is "aware that there is a grieving family following the death of Dennis Hutchings".

"The family of John Pat Cunningham also continue to grieve tonight, 47 years after he was gunned down by British soldiers.

"Let's remember that grief knows no bounds."

Filmmaker Sean Murray - whose documentary about the UVF Glenanne gang's alleged collusion with the UDR soldiers and RUC officers in murders in Tyrone and Armagh between 1972 and 1978 - advised people to "watch how the media whitewash the fact that John Pat Cunningham is the only victim here".

"The family will never see justice," he tweeted

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