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Death of veteran on trial for 1974 attempted murder sparks renewed debate in North

Dennis Hutchings died yesterday after contracting Covid-19.

Dennis Hutchings at Laganside Courts, Belfast
Dennis Hutchings at Laganside Courts, Belfast
Image: Peter Morrison via PA Images

NORTHERN IRELAND’S PUBLIC Prosecution Service has defended the decision to prosecute Army veteran Dennis Hutchings over a Troubles shooting.

Hutchings died in hospital in Belfast on Monday after contracting Covid-19, leading unionist politicians to raise concerns that the case against him had been allowed to proceed.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson challenged the prosecution service over what new and compelling evidence led to the trial.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said: “The PPS decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings for attempted murder was taken after an impartial and independent application of the Test for Prosecution.

“The Test for Prosecution requires a consideration of whether the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it does, whether prosecution is in the public interest.

dennis-hutchings-court-case John Pat Cunningham, who was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol in Tyrone in 1974 Source: PA

“Whilst a review of a previous no prosecution decision does not require the existence of new evidence, the police investigation in this case resulted in a file being submitted to the PPS which included certain evidence not previously available.

“In the course of the proceedings there were rulings by High Court judges that the evidence was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial and also that the proceedings were not an abuse of process.”

Agnew said the PPS recognised the “concerns in some quarters” in relation to the decision to bring the prosecution.

He added: “We would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Hutchings, and acknowledge their painful loss.

“However, where a charge is as serious as attempted murder, it will generally be in the public interest to prosecute.”

“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.”

Eighty-year-old Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

He was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

The former member of the Life Guards regiment, from Cawsand in Cornwall, had denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Cunningham, 27, was shot dead as he ran away from an Army patrol across a field near Benburb.

People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

His family have responded to the death of Hutchings saying they wished to acknowledge that this is a difficult time for the family, adding that they should be given time to grieve.

“When the time is judged appropriate, the family will respond in more detail to the issues surrounding the prosecution of Dennis Hutchings,” they said.

Meanwhile former UK veterans minister Johnny Mercer tweeted that he is “devastated by the death of my dear friend”.

Mercer, who accompanied Hutchings to court on several days of the trial, said he “remains fiercely proud of him”.

Hutchings died at the Mater Hospital on Monday while in Belfast for the trial.

Hours earlier, the trial had been adjourned for three weeks in light of Hutchings’ health.

Jeffrey said there are “serious questions that need to be answered”.

“What was the compelling new evidence that had emerged, given that Dennis had previously faced two investigations and had been found guilty of no crime, and therefore why now?” he told PA in London.

“What was in the public interest to bring this man to trial at this time, particularly in relation to his ill-health and the fact that I doubt if there was new and compelling evidence in this case?”

Jeffrey added: “I think that we have to have a fair system. Everyone is equal under the law and equally subject to the law.

“That means that we have a process that examines all the cases where families have an interest in pursuing justice and if after investigation there is new and compelling evidence that could lead to a prosecution, then I think the PPS and the courts should look at those cases.”

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Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie called for a “full and thorough” review into the decision-making of the Public Prosecution Service.

“I would like to convey my sincere condolences to Mr Hutchings` family and friends,” Beattie said.

“The decision by the Public Prosecution Service to proceed with a trial given his ill-health demands a full and thorough independent review.

“The questions must be asked, did this trial hasten Mr Hutchings’ death and did it meet the evidential and public interest tests?”

Danny Kinahan, the Veterans Commissioner for Northern Ireland, said that the news was “incredibly sad”.

On Twitter, he wrote: “I got to know Dennis over recent years. An elderly man, in poor health, he was determined to clear his name once and for all.”

“Deepest condolences & sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time.”

DUP MP Carla Lockhart also described the news as “awful”.

She tweeted: “Such sad news that he never got to live out his last days in peace. Awful. Spent last months of his life being hounded by a political show trial.”

Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew reacted to the news last night.

She tweeted: “I’m aware that there is a grieving family following the death of Denis 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.”

The Progressive Unionist Party also said it extended its “profound sympathies” to the family of Hutchings.

The party’s armed forces spokesperson, Jim McCaw, said: “It is shameful that a veteran was hounded in his last day’s instead of being at home with his loved ones.”

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