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Dennis Hutchings tried to save life of man he was accused of trying to murder, his lawyer claims


Dennis Hutchings (80) arriving at Laganside Courts, Belfast. He passed away with Covid-19 on October 18 2021. Photo credit: PA

Dennis Hutchings (80) arriving at Laganside Courts, Belfast. He passed away with Covid-19 on October 18 2021. Photo credit: PA


Dennis Hutchings (80) arriving at Laganside Courts, Belfast. He passed away with Covid-19 on October 18 2021. Photo credit: PA

Former soldier Dennis Hutchings tried to save the life of John Pat Cunningham, the man he was on trial for for attempting to murder, his lawyer has claimed.

Mr Hutchings died with Covid-19 in Belfast on Monday, hours after his non-jury trial was paused.

Mr Cunningham (27), was shot in the back as he ran from an Army patrol near Benburb, Co Tyrone, in 1974.

Speaking to the BBC’s Evening Extra programme on Tuesday, Mr Hutchings’ defence lawyer, Philip Barden said that according to the army veteran’s version of events, another soldier “fired two shots and killed” Mr Cunningham.

“Dennis Hutchings went up to him, applied field dressings and tried to save his life. That’s not the action of somebody who’s just tried to kill somebody,” Mr Barden added.

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He said that initially, Mr Hutchings and his fellow soldiers came across Mr Cunningham, who was “behaving suspiciously".

“They did not know sadly that John Cunningham suffered from severe learning difficulties, nobody knew this, that’s the tragedy.”

Mr Cunningham was confirmed to have had a fear of men in uniform and ran away from Hutchings and the other soldiers in a field, noted Mr Barden.

He added that three soldiers chased him and that Dennis Hutchings fired three warning shots in total, aimed above his head, to stop Mr Cunningham from running.

“At that moment another soldier fired two shots and killed him.”

A statement issued on behalf of John Pat Cunningham’s family said that Mr Cunningham “was described by a doctor to have been born with an incomplete development of the mind and... in today's society would perhaps be described as a vulnerable adult... said to have had the mind of a seven-year old".

The statement noted that there were eight "uncontested" facts in the case, including a detail that the army patrol which "came across John Pat... was led by Dennis Hutchings" who was "in the front seat of the vehicle and was the first to get out".

They said another uncontested fact was that Soldier E "saw Hutchings stop in the middle of the field and said that he warned John Pat to halt, and that when John Pat kept running, Hutchings cocked his rifle.

"Soldier E said he heard three or four shots and John Pat fell. Soldier E said he could state who fired their gun."

The statement also says evidence in court showed the shooting had not been "the result of a `split second' decision".

When asked about the uncontested evidence on air, Mr Barden said: “I can't help you as to what new evidence there was, because I don’t think there was any apart from the tracer rounds. That should have been revealed years ago.”

He said that “last week in the trial it emerged for the first time in 47 years that two of the rounds fired were what are called tracer rounds. Dennis’ case is that he did not fire at John Cunningham. That would mean that tracer rounds were fired by the other soldier.

“If you're hit by a tracer round, it will leave traces of strontium in the wound and on your clothing. There were field dressings at the scene that were not kept. There was clothing that was not kept,” Mr Barden continued.

“So the prosecution had originally material that would have enabled us to prove that Dennis had not shot this man and that was lost.”

Since Mr Hutchings’ death, his lawyer has said that he hopes “the government will now enact a statute of limitation that will end the shameful pursuit of army veterans in Northern Ireland. This should be known as Dennis’ law as it is the cause he fought and died for.”

“There needs to be an end to this pursuit. It’s not working,” he told the BBC.

“You’ve seen so many trials now. You’ve got Bloody Sunday and other trials, all of them have been stopped. This process, the criminal law, is not fit for the purpose of finding out the truth.”

The lawyer also believes Mr Hutchings’ death could have been preventable, had he not had to come to Northern Ireland for the trial.

“Dennis survived Covid in England. He was having dialysis, he was double jabbed, he came to Northern Ireland to defend himself and of course he had to have dialysis, he had to move through public areas, and he caught Covid and he died. That’s a fact.”

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