Army shooting of father-of-six Henry Thornton not reasonable, coroner rules
The Army shooting of a father of six after the van he was driving backfired outside a police station was not necessary, reasonable or proportionate, a coroner has ruled.
Henry Thornton (29) died almost instantly when a soldier shot him twice through the rear of his Austin works van close to Springfield Road police station in west Belfast in August 1971. Mr Thornton, from Silverbridge, Co Armagh, and his colleague Arthur Murphy were driving to work early in the morning when the incident unfolded outside a police station that was repeatedly attacked during the Troubles.
Coroner Brian Sherrard delivered his findings at Belfast Coroners' Court yesterday after an inquest into the legacy killing.
He dismissed a claim by another soldier - Soldier C - that he had seen a gun being fired from the van at the police station and said no weapon or ammunition was found in the vehicle. He said the van had simply backfired twice.
Solider C had relayed his account of a gun attack to Soldier A, a member of the Parachute Regiment, who then ran down the street after the van, dropped to his knee and fired his rifle at the back of the van. "Soldier A proceeded on the honestly-held but false belief that the van's occupants had been involved in firing shots at the station," said Mr Sherrard.
The coroner said that despite his belief that shots had been fired, Soldier A should not have opened fire.
"At the time Soldier A fired the fatal shots his objective was to stop the van," said the coroner.
"He would undoubtedly have known that firing two high-velocity bullets at the driver of the vehicle was likely to result in the driver's death. There is no evidence that Soldier A considered a less forceful response to the situation than the death of the driver. At the time of the shooting Soldier A was not under attack."
He added: "Other options to stop or pursue the vehicle were available. In such circumstances the shooting of Mr Thornton was neither a necessary nor a reasonable nor a proportionate response to the situation Soldier A either actually encountered or thought that he encountered."
The coroner's findings were delivered in preliminary format pending a decision on whether the identity of Soldier A will be made public.
Outside court Mr Thornton's widow Mary and Mr Murphy welcomed the coroner's findings.
Mrs Thornton said: "I am just so glad these findings have come out - the truth is out at last, we can let him rest now."