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Flybe and coronavirus fears delay Dennis Hutchings Troubles trial

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Dennis Hutchings (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Dennis Hutchings (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Dennis Hutchings (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The trial of a former soldier for a Troubles-related death which due to start in Belfast next week has been delayed due to concerns over his health and the threat of coronavirus.

He also had been booked on Flybe flight to travel to Belfast.

Dennis Hutchings is facing two charges relating to the June 1974 death of John Pat Cunningham. The 27-year old, who had learning difficulties, was shot running from an Army patrol in Benburb, Co Tyrone.

From Cawsand in Cornwall, the 78-year old defendant's non-jury trial was scheduled to begin at Belfast Crown Court next Monday.

The case was listed for mention on Friday, where a defence application to adjourn proceedings was made to Mr Justice Colton.

The family of Mr Cunningham said they were disappointed over the delay.

John Pat's nephew Charlie Agnew said: "We are severely disappointed that this trial will not now commence after so many years of patient waiting."

Hutchings defence barrister Ian Turkington said medical reports had been handed to the court which revealed the pensioner has a chest infection and is on a second course of antibiotics.

Mr Turkington said "by virtue of his present chest infection, he was advised yesterday not to travel until he has recovered".

Revealing his client's flight to Belfast to attend the trial next week was "lost" as he was due to travel with Flybe, Mr Turkington then spoke of the threat of coronavirus.

He said: "There was also a view expressed by the doctor that it would be prudent that Mr Hutchings should mitigate his risk by staying at home, by virtue of the coronavirus."

Seeking an adjournment on these grounds, Mr Turkington said "there is a great deal of uncertainty in relation to the Coronavirus" and that due to his client's current chest infection, he wanted the court to observe the medical advice given to Hutchings.

Mr Turkington said his application to seek an adjournment was based on two main issues - to allow Hutchings to recover from his chest infection, and also to seek "more clarity of Coronavirus and the risk to Mr Hutchings".

When asked for the Crown's opinion on the application to adjourn, Charles MacCreanor QC said it was accepted that due to his health, "the defendant's mortality rate from Coronavirus would be much higher than the average member of the public."

The prosecutor added: "We wish to start this trial. We are ready to start this trial, and the criminal process has been drawn out and delayed for years. We are keen to get this case started."

Mr Justice Colton said the court was "fully aware of the defendant's medical condition and the fact of the matter is that he is now 78, he is at the end stage of renal failure and requires regular dialysis.

"The arraignment was done by Skype and the trial was listed to start on Monday in circumstances where a provision was made for him to attend dialysis, which meant the trial would not be sitting every day during the week."

The Judge confirmed the court had received a medical report from Hutchings consultant on Thursday, which outlined the pensioner was on anti-biotics for a chest infection and had been advised not to travel.

Saying it was "hard to argue" with the medical advise, Mr Justice Colton said it would be wrong to make Hutchings attend next week "in light of the medical evidence and risk to his life."

He concluded by saying: "I am quite satisfied the appropriate course of action is to take the trial out for next Monday and put it in for review next Friday."

Crown barrister Charles MacCreanor then spoke of the "looming shadow of coronavirus" and said he would be "keen to get an update as soon as possible as to whether or not he (Hutchings) is able to travel."

Judge Colton said that if this was to become a long-term issue, the trial may have to be conducted via video link or Skype - but added "I would be reluctant to have it that way. A defendant should be in court."

Hutchings - a former member of the Life Guards - was on duty the day of the fatal shooting over four decades ago. He was subsequently charged with, and denies, attempting to murder Mr Cunningham and of attempting to cause him grievous bodily harm with intent.

The family of Mr Cunningham, who was shot in the back as he ran across fields to his home, said he feared men in uniforms.

The case will be mentioned again at Belfast Crown Court next Friday.

Belfast Telegraph