Coroner to rule on soldier evidence
A coroner said he will reflect carefully before deciding if a British soldier who fired a rubber bullet that killed a Belfast schoolboy is too ill to give evidence at an inquest.
Coroner Jim Kitson told a preliminary hearing his investigation into the death of 11-year-old Francis Rowntree would be "severely hampered" if the retired soldier was unable to attend.
But he stressed the man's heart condition - as outlined in a medical report - had to be a factor in his deliberations on whether to compel him to give evidence.
Francis was hit on the head by the military projectile as he played with friends at the Divis Flats complex close to Belfast's Falls Road in April 1972. He died in hospital four days later.
Controversy surrounds the shooting, with disputed claims on whether the young boy was struck directly or hit by a ricochet, and if the bullet had been doctored to make it potentially cause more injury.
The former member of the Royal Anglian Regiment who fired the baton round is known to the court as soldier B.
At this morning's hearing in Belfast, Martin Wolfe QC, representing the Ministry of Defence (MoD), outlined the contents of a report produced for the coroner's court by soldier B's consultant cardiologist.
"It appears on the face of it to be quite a severe condition involving multiple medical interventions over the years," the lawyer told the court.
He said the doctor had expressed "significant reservations" about his patient's fitness to attend.
"The likelihood of a heart attack or death would be small but not zero," added Mr Wolfe.
"There is a significant risk to the health of this man to compel him to give evidence."
But appearing for the Rowntree family, Fiona Doherty QC said a number of steps could be taken to make the witness feel at ease.
She suggested the ex-soldier could give evidence via video-link; there could be regular breaks in the hearing; medical assistance could be on standby and the court could be partially cleared.
"I would ask you to consider the matter very carefully," she told Mr Kitson.
"You know the gravity of the case and you know he's essentially the key witness and very important to the case."
With Francis's brother Jim Rowntree looking on from the public gallery, the coroner said he had to balance two very important factors.
"This is a key witness and clearly the inquest would be severely hampered if this witness is not in attendance," he said.
"But I'm acutely aware of the impact on this man's health.
"It's a fine balancing act between the two prerogatives and pressures.
"I will reflect on this very carefully."
During the hearing, Ms Doherty also expressed concern that some documents disclosed to the court by the MoD had been "over-redacted".
Mr Kitson asked his legal representatives to review the redactions again in light of Ms Doherty's remarks.
The inquest is due to start on April 27.