British army veteran does not accept he fired shots at man in Co Tyrone

Dennis Hutchings (80) denies attempting to murder John Pat Cunningham in 1974

Former British soldier Dennis Hutchings (80) is surrounded by supporters as he arrives at Laganside Courts in  Belfast for his trial. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

Former British soldier Dennis Hutchings (80) is surrounded by supporters as he arrives at Laganside Courts in Belfast for his trial. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

 

A British army veteran charged in relation to the fatal shooting of a man with learning difficulties does not accept that he fired any shots, his trial has heard.

Dennis Hutchings (80), a former member of the Life Guards regiment, has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. He also denies a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Mr Cunningham (27) was shot dead as he ran away from an army patrol across a field near Benburb. People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

The second day of the non-jury trial in Belfast Crown Court also heard that Mr Cunningham had been involved in a similar incident with an army patrol in the same area a year earlier, when soldiers tried to detain him after finding him hiding in bushes and “acting suspiciously”.

The court heard he was released when a passing local doctor intervened and explained Mr Cunningham was his patient and he had learning difficulties and was innocent of any wrongdoing.

In relation to the fatal shooting on June 15th, 1974, a defence barrister said Hutchings accepted he was in the field where the incident happened but nothing else.

No evidence

James Lewis QC also insisted there was no evidence before the court that proved an unnamed soldier referred to in witness statements given by other soldiers following the shooting was the defendant.

On the opening day of the trial, the prosecution contended the individual referred to as soldier A in the statements was Mr Hutchings.

Mr Lewis told judge Mr Justice O’Hara that the defence did not accept the identities of the two soldiers said to have fired five shots at Mr Cunningham - soldiers A and B - had been proved.

“Nothing in the papers before your lordship identifies who soldiers A or B are,” he said.

Prosecution barrister Charles McCreanor QC indicated the Crown would seek to introduce evidence at a later stage in the trial that proved the identity of soldier A. The prosecution has said soldier B is deceased.

Judge O’Hara later questioned Mr Lewis on the extent of Mr Hutchings’s admissions. He referenced a defence statement submitted ahead of the trial which stated that on the issue of whether the defendant fired “aimed shots” at Mr Cunningham, the defence would argue Mr Hutchings only fired “warning shots” in order to make him “comply with a lawful order to halt”.

Contested

Responding, Mr Lewis explained that would only be the defence position if the prosecution could establish Mr Hutchings had a case to answer. He said it was for the prosecution to prove Mr Hutchings fired any shots.

“The fact he was in the field is not contested, anything more than that is contested,” said the barrister.

There was a sharp exchange during this legal discussion, when Justice O’Hara accused Mr Lewis of talking over him, telling the lawyer that was not how he expected proceedings to be conducted in Northern Ireland. Mr Lewis apologised.

In the Crown’s opening statement on Monday, the prosecution said as no bullets had been recovered from the scene it was not possible to prove which soldier fired the fatal shot that hit Mr Cunningham in the back.

For that reason, the Crown said, Mr Hutchings was facing a charge of attempted murder. – PA