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Family of man shot in back welcomes ruling against ex-soldier Hutchings

Challenge: Dennis Hutchings
Challenge: Dennis Hutchings

Dennis Hutchings, a former soldier facing prosecution over a shooting during Northern Ireland's Troubles has lost a Supreme Court bid to have his trial heard by a jury.

The UK's highest court give its ruling on Thursday, June 6. Hutchings, 78, a former member of the Life Guards regiment, is charged in relation to the fatal shooting of a John Pat Cunningham, who had learning difficulties.

Giving the court's unanimous judgment in London on Thursday, Lord Kerr said it was "entirely unsurprising" that prosecutors decided there could be a risk of a biased juror or jury.

The judge said there was "no fundamental right" to have a trial by jury, adding: "The fundamental right is to a fair trial."

Mr Cunningham was killed in disputed circumstances in Co Armagh in June 1974.

The 27-year-old was shot in the back as he ran away from an Army patrol. His family contend that he ran across a field because he feared men in uniform.

In a statement after the ruling, Kevin Winters of KRW law, which represents his family, said: "This is a welcome judgment from the UK Supreme Court for the family of John Patrick Cunningham.

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

"It illustrates the importance of the judiciary upholding contested decisions by law officers such as the Director of Public Prosecutions."

He added: "This will be a fair trial before a judge and will be about justice not retribution."

More than 40 years on, a case was brought against Mr Hutchings after Northern Ireland's attorney general asked prosecutors to review the case.

John Patrick Cunningham
John Patrick Cunningham

Mr Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, is due to stand trial in Belfast charged with attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent. He denies the charges.

A panel of five Supreme Court justices in London made the ruling on Mr Hutchings' challenge to a decision by prosecutors that his trial will be heard by a judge alone, rather than by a jury.

The Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland can direct a defendant be tried by a judge alone, in what was formerly known as a Diplock court, where a charged offence was "committed to any extent ... as a result of, in connection with or in response to religious or political hostility".

Prosecutors concluded that, in Mr Hutchings' case, there was "a risk that the administration of justice might be impaired if the trial were to be conducted with a jury".

But at a hearing in March, Mr Hutchings' barrister James Lewis QC said the connection to "sectarian violence as required" by the law was "too remote".

Gerald Simpson QC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, however argued Mr Hutchings' contention that the shooting did not relate to "religious or political hostility" effectively "ignores the reality of the situation which prevailed in Northern Ireland in 1974".

On the same day as the March hearing, Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service announced that one former paratrooper would be charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder on Bloody Sunday.

The veteran, known as Soldier F, will face charges for the alleged murders of James Wray and William McKinney and the alleged attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O'Donnell in Londonderry in 1972.

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