It is a case almost 50 years old, while almost six years have passed since former soldier Dennis Hutchings was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham.
So it was hardly any great surprise that, despite being scheduled to start in Court 15 of Belfast Crown Court at 10.30am, the case was delayed for a further hour on Monday.
A lengthy list of media listened in on the Sightlink, the online portal used to view court cases during the pandemic, when at 11.34am Justice O’Hara entered the court for the start of the judge only, non-jury trial.
The build-up to the trial may have taken years of legal arguments but it has been almost five decades of waiting for the family of Mr Cunningham, a vulnerable 27-year-old shot three times from behind as he ran through a field in Benburb.
Day one was for the prosecution to outline the case against Hutchings, but before the case could even get to this point there was more build up to be had — this time outside the doors of the Laganside complex.
Tory MP and former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer had been posting previews on social media as though a trailer for some grim reality show.
Mercer resigned from the Cabinet because he did not feel the government was introducing an amnesty in Northern Ireland quickly enough. A former soldier himself, it is no great surprise that he is backing Hutchings.
On Thursday he posted a picture of the two men together in his Plymouth constituency: “Great to see Dennis for a blustery lunch,” he tweeted. “I think it’s important politicians keep their promises, so I’ll be by his side in Belfast.”
On Saturday he posted, “Heading to Belfast tomorrow with Dennis — he is dying, and would have been travelling alone. I’ve realised whatever Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers say for the crowds, no-one really gives a s***.”
It wasn’t over yet as there was also a plane selfie: “Off to Belfast. Let’s get this done”, posted Mercer on Sunday.
Hutchings, from Cornwall, is an ex-member of the Life Guards regiment.
He arrived for court on Monday morning smartly suited with his military medals pinned to his chest and his loyal sidekick Johnny Mercer by his side.
Covid no doubt reduced the number of people who showed up for the first day of the trial but a small crowd of supporters stood at the gates holding signs. Hutchings posed for a picture with one supporter holding a ‘Support the Paras’ flag.
Among the small crowd were DUP MP Carla Lockhart. While the party have said they are against a statute of limitations for all Troubles killings, the Upper Bann MP made clear she did not think the trial should be going ahead.
“Honoured to support Dennis Hutchings today. A man of 80 years old, with severe heart and kidney problems, being dragged before the courts to appease republicans. The same republicans who are safe in the knowledge they will never be before the courts for heinous crimes”, she posted, along with a picture of herself, Mr Hutchings and the ever-present Mr Mercer.
As build ups go, the veteran soldier couldn’t have asked for a better reception — if this was a reality show, he was the central character.
The person who lost their life, Mr Cunningham, was barely mentioned in the build-up. Mr Cunningham’s niece and nephew sat quietly in the public gallery of the court, their entrance much more low-key.
Mr Hutchings was placed into the dock and given a headset to help with the acoustics of the court and for the first time listened to the details of the case against him outlined by the prosecution. The Sightlink camera remained firmly on Mr Justice O’Hara as he started looking through maps and pictures of the scene from the time, including autopsy pictures of Mr Cunningham.
Crown lawyer Charles MacCreanor QC opened the case by describing Mr Cunningham.
“Having been born with an incomplete development of the mind and was declared as requiring special care within the mental health of Northern Ireland Act 1948, those that knew him were aware of his learning difficulties”, he said.
It was then outlined that on the day of the shooting an Army patrol came across Mr Cunningham standing close to a hedge.
Hutchings was in charge of the patrol and was the front seat passenger in the lead vehicle.
The prosecution’s case is that the rules of engagement were not followed, in the case.
The court was told the fatal bullet entered the left side of Mr Cunningham’s back and went forward through his body.
A second bullet passed him and a possible third entered his right hand.
Death was due to a shot in the back.
The deceased had been running away through an open field at the time.
During the 1974 police interviews, Hutchings when asked about the incident said either “I don’t wish to say anything at this time” or “I have taken legal advice and I have been advised not to make a statement at this time” or “I don’t wish to answer that until I have seen my legal adviser”.
The case concluded for the day at lunchtime. Hutchings waved at supporters as he left.
The trial resumes on Wednesday.
All those present know the case is taking place amid the backdrop of a move by Downing Street to end all future prosecutions linked to the Troubles.
Both the family of the victim and the accused are aware this could well be the last trial of its kind.