Belfast Telegraph

Date set for ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings' trial over Troubles attempted murder

Dennis Hutchings
Dennis Hutchings

By John Cassidy

Former British soldier Dennis Hutchings has been ordered to stand trial next year accused of the attempted murder of a vulnerable man in Northern Ireland over 40 years ago.

At Belfast Crown Court on Friday, senior judge Mr Justice Colton set the date for the non-jury Diplock-style trial as Monday, March 9, 2020.

The 78-year-old, from Cawsand, Cornwall, was not in court today for the brief hearing during which the judge was told that an up to date medical report on the former member of the Life Guards regiment made for "grim reading''.

Mr Justice Colton also ruled that Mr Hutchings will be formally arraigned later this month on the two charges he faces.

Both the prosecution and the defence agreed that the arraignment hearing can take place via videolink from a courtroom in England.

Mr Hutchings has been accused of the attempted murder of John Patrick Cunningham on June 15, 1974.

Mr Cunningham was shot in the back by the Army with an SLR rifle in a field on the outskirts of Benburb in Co Tyrone.

Scene of the shooting of John Pat Cunningham
Scene of the shooting of John Pat Cunningham

The former soldier is further accused of "unlawfully and maliciously attempting to cause grievous bodily harm to John Patrick Cunningham with intent to do him grievous bodily harm''.

Defence barrister Ian Turkington told Mr Justice Colton that a medical report had been lodged with the court on August 15 this year and a copy was also provided to the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland.

He said the report, compiled by a Dr Hunt, "makes for rather grim reading''.

A previous court hearing was told that Mr Hutchings was suffering from "acute renal failure'' and would spend the rest of his life on dialysis.

During today's hearing, Mr Turkington explained that the defendant was currently "receiving dialysis three times per week''.

The defence barrister suggested that, given Mr Hutchings ill health, he could be formally arraigned on the two charges "either on the morning of the trial or at the teeth of the trial''.

Mr Turkington said that because of the defendant's treatment, there would need to be consultation between Mr Hutching's primary care health officials in England with their counterparts in Northern Ireland.

Mr Justice Colton heard that a defence expert witness was unavailable for the provisional trial date in January next year but said he would available for March 2020.

Senior crown counsel Charles MacCreanor QC said it was the prosecution's view that the arraignment hearing should take place within four weeks.

He told the court that the prosecution was aware of Mr Hutchings health issues in the case and suggested the defendant could follow trial proceedings by video link from England.

"He would then attend court to give evidence if he wished,'' said Mr MacCreanor.

The senior prosecutor added that there had been delays in the case and "it has has taken a long period of time to get matters on''.

John Patrick Cunningham
John Patrick Cunningham

He urged the court to "expedite the hearing as much as possible''.

Mr Justice Colton said he recognised that Mr Hutchings "will require some accommodation'' given his health problems and said the defendant will be formally arraigned on September 27 via video link.

"If that date doesn't suit we can make a date that does.

"I will list the trial date for Monday, March 9, 2020,'' he added.

Mr Hutchings had sought trial before a jury rather than a Diplock-style court hearing where the judge decides the case in order to avoid the danger of jury intimidation in terrorist-related cases.

In June this year, the Supreme Court in London gave an unanimous ruling that the trial should be held without a jury.

Lord Kerr, delivering the judgment, said trial by jury should not be assumed to be the unique means of achieving fairness in the criminal justice process.

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