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Derry mother was shot by soldier in ‘unjustified’ circumstances, says coroner

Kathleen Thompson, a 47-year-old housewife, was killed by a bullet to the chest in her back garden in Derry in 1971.

Kathleen Thompson was a mother of six at the time of her death in 197
Kathleen Thompson was a mother of six at the time of her death in 197
Image: PA

A MOTHER OF six was shot dead by a soldier in her back garden in circumstances which were “unjustified”, a coroner has ruled.

Kathleen Thompson, a 47-year-old housewife, was killed by a bullet to the chest in Derry on 6 November, 1971, an inquest heard.

Two bullets were fired by someone identified only as soldier D into her garden in Rathlin Drive, Creggan, as he and others were withdrawing from the area, Judge Sandra Crawford said.

She said Mrs Thompson was unarmed and had been in her back garden banging a bin lid or other object to alert neighbours to the presence of soldiers in the area.

The shooting of Ms Thompson, whose children were aged between seven and 18 at the time, breached guidance on the deployment of lethal force provided to soldiers, the coroner said.

Giving a summary of her findings today, the coroner said: “Her death was caused by a high-velocity shot fired by soldier D from a position on Southway, Derry, as he and other soldiers were withdrawing from the area.

“Soldier D did not have an honest belief that a gunshot had been fired from the garden of 129 Rathlin Drive and that his life and the lives of others were under immediate threat.”

She said “shooting into a dark garden in a residential area in such circumstances” breached guidance on soldiers’ use of lethal force.

She found that the soldier had fired two shots into Mrs Thompson’s back garden “in circumstances which were unjustified”.

Sitting at the Laganside Courts complex in Belfast, Judge Crawford said soldier D had presented a “contrived and self-serving account” of what happened.

She said that “in all likelihood he was frightened” and had “overreacted to the noise and activity which was prevalent at the time of his withdrawal” from the area.

But she said being frightened or panicking “does not begin to justify” the force used by the soldier, who fired a further six shots.

The coroner said no proper investigation had been carried out into the death.

A previous inquest into Mrs Thompson’s death, held in 1972, returned an open verdict.

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A new inquest was ordered in September 2013 and began in 2018.

Following of the delivery of the coroner’s findings, a statement from Ms Thompson’s family said: “The soldier responsible for Mrs Thompson’s death gave evidence over the course of 4 days. He persistently claimed not to have a clear recollection of the only time in which he has ever fired lived rounds in anger and killed someone.
embedded240956798 David and Erne Thompson outside Laganside Courts in Belfast for a previous inquest hearing into the death of their mother
“It is only by testing the witness’ account given immediately after the event using the independently objective ballistics, pathology and other witness evidence can a proper assessment of the witness’ credibility be reached.”

The statement, issued via a solicitor, sharply criticised the legacy inquest system: “Any person who thinks that the proper circumstances of the how Kathleen Thompson died could be established through the mechanisms suggested by the current government’s legacy proposals and reliant upon the cooperation and honesty of those responsible for the death, is frankly living on another planet.”

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood also said the verdict is a damning indictment of the British government’s approach to legacy inquests.

Speaking from Westminster, ahead of a debate on the controversial Legacy Bill, Eastwood said: “The truth about what happened to a mother of six in the back garden of her own home was delayed for more than 50 years by the institutions of the state but it could never be denied to those who loved Kathleen. They have taken on the full might of the British government and today, at long last, they have been vindicated.

“Today in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland] will make the flawed case for new legislation which would have denied justice to the Thompson family forever. Brandon Lewis will seek support for an end to legacy inquests and investigations, pulling down the shutters on other families desperate to know what happened to their loved ones.

“It is the clearest possible demonstration that the path taken by Brandon Lewis is immoral, unjustifiable and will allow those who committed heinous crimes against people in Ireland to get away with it.”

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