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Dennis Hutchings: Tributes as ex-soldier dies after testing positive for Covid during trial over John Pat Cunningham shooting

Veteran passed away hours after court case was halted


Dennis Hutchings. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Dennis Hutchings. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Dennis Hutchings. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Tributes have been paid to a Troubles veteran who died in Belfast with Covid-19 on Monday night hours after his trial for a fatal shooting in 1974 was halted.

Dennis Hutchings passed away hours after his non-jury trial for attempting to murder John Pat Cunningham (27) in Benburb, Co Tyrone was paused.

Mr Cunningham was shot in the back as he ran from an Army patrol in a field.

The 80-year-old’s trial had been adjourned for three weeks after the defendant contracted coronavirus.

Mr Hutchings, who denied all charges, had been suffering from kidney disease and the trial had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings. It’s understood he also suffered from heart failure and fluid on the lung.

It was reported that the great grandfather had been self-isolating in a Belfast hotel when he was rushed to the Mater Hospital. Reports suggested his doctors had advised him not to travel to Belfast for the trial.

His death is likely to reignite the heated debate over ending the prosecution of Troubles veterans that has been raging for years. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had vowed to end them, but as his Government’s plans would also mean an end to the prosecution of paramilitaries, others had opposed the effective ‘Troubles amnesty’ for equating soldiers with terrorists. 

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NI Veterans Commissioner Danny Kinahan said it had been “incredibly sad to learn of the passing of veteran Dennis Hutchings”.

“I got to know Dennis over recent years. An elderly man, in poor health, he was determined to clear his name once and for all,” he said.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP said the death was “desperately sad news”.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Hutchings family,” he said.

“We have said all along that Dennis should never have been brought to trial again, not least because of his health but also a lack of compelling new evidence.

“There are serious questions to answer here.”

Fellow DUP MP Carla Lockhart had attended the trial to support Mr Hutchings.

“Such sad news that he never got to live out his last days in peace. Awful,” she tweeted.

“Spent last months of his life being hounded by a political show trial. My thoughts are with his family, friends and his loyal friend (Conservative MP and former veterans minister) Johnny Mercer.”

TUV leader Jim Allister has said that the court case “has had a very sad end with the passing of Mr Hutchings”.

“The strain on this man was cruel, with him requiring regular dialysis, while being brought to Belfast to face a trial of dubious provenance,” Mr Allister said in a statement.

“My thoughts and prayers tonight are with his family and friends who may understandably feel that what he was put through contributed to his decline.”

Mr Hutchings’ defence barrister James Lewis QC had yesterday informed Belfast Crown Court his client had Covid as proceedings in the non-jury trial were due to commence on Monday.

He told judge Mr Justice O’Hara that Hutchings’ condition had been confirmed by a PCR test on Saturday.

“I regret Mr Hutchings is not well with regard as one would expect with his other comorbidities of renal failure and cardiac malfunction,” he said.

“And we are unable to presently take instructions as he is currently in isolation in his hotel room.”

Mr Lewis applied for an adjournment which was not opposed by the Crown barrister.

Mr Justice O’Hara said: “Things have obviously deteriorated over the weekend with his positive test for Covid. It is simply not possible to continue the trial in his absence.”

The former member of the Life Guards regiment from Cawsand in Cornwall also denies a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

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