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Murder charge ex-paras clear first hurdle to face jury trial over IRA man's death

Both men are accused of killing Joe McCann in 1972

By Alan Erwin

Two former paratroopers charged with murdering an Official IRA man 46 years ago have cleared the first stage in their High Court battle to face trial by jury.

The pair, known only as Soldier A and Soldier C, were granted leave to seek a judicial review of a decision to have their case heard by a judge sitting alone.

Both men are accused of killing Joe McCann in Belfast back in April 1972.

McCann, one of the Official IRA's most prominent activists, was shot in disputed circumstances near his home in the Market area.

A police investigation conducted at the time resulted in no-one being prosecuted.

But in 2013 a report by the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team concluded the killing was not justified.

Files were then passed to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), who reviewed the case and decided in 2016 to bring murder charges.

The defendants, now aged in their sixties, have been given anonymity amid fears that identification could put their lives at risk.

According to the prosecution, Soldier A and Soldier C are surviving members of the army patrol involved in the shooting incident. A third member of the unit has since died.

Legal proceedings were issued by the ex-paratroopers after the Director of Public Prosecutions issued a certificate for a non-jury trial.

Their lawyers claim the decision was based on a wrong interpretation of the 2007 Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act.

Trials by judges sitting alone were meant to deal with potential issues of jury tampering in cases involving paramilitary organisations, they contend.

With leave to apply for judicial review granted, proceedings have been put on hold pending the outcome of a similar challenge by another former soldier facing prosecution.

Dennis Hutchings, 77, is charged with offences connected to the death of John Patrick Cunninghman in Co Armagh in 1974.

Mr Cunningham, 27, was shot in the back as he ran away from a British Army patrol near Benburb.

He has been described as an innocent, vulnerable and unarmed man who had a fear of people in uniform

Mr Hutchings, who served in the Life Guards, was charged with attempted murder after the killing was re-examined by police.

It is alleged that he and another soldier both fired their guns, although it is not known who discharged the fatal bullet.

The pensioner, from Cawsand in Cornwall, denies the charges against him and has made the case it was never his intention to kill or injure Mr Cunningham.

He is also mounting a legal bid to have his trial heard in front of a jury, rather than a judge sitting alone.

Mr Hutchings' challenge was rejected last December, which prompted him to take his case to the Supreme Court in London.

That hearing is due to take place next March, with judgement delivered sometime later.

Soldier A and Solider C's case have been adjourned until that verdict is delivered.

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