There was a weary predictability to yesterday’s decision not to proceed with the trials of two Army veterans facing Troubles-era murder charges.
The cases involve defendants known as ‘Solder F’ and ‘Soldier B’. Soldier F was due to stand trial accused of the murder of James Wray and William McKinney on Bloody Sunday in January 1972.
The prosecution of Soldier B relates to the shooting of schoolboy Daniel Hegarty, who was killed in Derry in July the same year.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) ruled that there was no longer a reasonable prospect of key evidence against the former soldiers being ruled admissible.
The PPS’ decision follows the collapse in May of the trial of two other veterans, ‘Soldier A’ and ‘Soldier C’, who were accused of murdering Official IRA leader Joe McCann in April 1972.
Murder is the most serious offence on the criminal calendar. For that reason, it has never been subject to a statute of limitations.
All criminal charges, where on conviction the defendant could forfeit their liberty, must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
So-called ‘legacy’ cases become more complicated when this high evidential bar is compounded with at times scare evidence, the unavailability (through death or infirmity) of some witnesses and the conflicting recollections of others.
It is the settled policy of this newspaper that relatives of Troubles’ victims are entitled to justice and that police and prosecutors must be free to follow the evidence wherever it takes them.
But prosecutors, rightly, must also give due weight to the likelihood of a successful prosecution. Where there is no such likelihood, the public interest in prosecuting is not engaged.
This arid legalism will, of course, be as naught to the Wray, McKinney and Hegarty families. But Troubles-era prosecutions simply aren’t working in their current guise. It is time to find a better way of delivering justice. That conversation needs to start without delay.