British veteran's Troubles shooting trial halted as he catches Covid

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The trial of Army veteran Dennis Hutchings over a Troubles shooting has been halted after he contracted Covid-19.

Mr Hutchings, 80, a former member of the Life Guards regiment, is due to return to court in three weeks over the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. 

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. 

Mr Hutchings has previously said he does not accept he fired any shots as he pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder charge and a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent. 

Defence barrister James Lewis QC today informed Belfast Crown that Mr Hutchings had caught Covid-19 as proceedings in the non-jury trial were due to commence on Monday. 

He told judge Mr Justice O’Hara that the veteran’s condition had been confirmed by a PCR test on Saturday. 

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‘I regret Mr Hutchings is not well with regard, as one would expect, with his other co-morbidities of renal failure and cardiac malfunction. And we are unable to presently take instructions as he is currently in isolation in his hotel room.’

Mr Justice O’Hara adjourned the trial until November 8.

Mr Hutchings has previously pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder charge and also denies a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.  

The veteran is suffering from kidney disease and the court has been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.   

Adjourning the case, Mr Justice O’Hara, told the court on Monday: ‘The optimism from last Monday about finishing the trial this week has faded away.

‘We lost a bit of time on Wednesday, then we lost Friday entirely because of Mr Hutchings’ cardiac problems.

‘Things have obviously deteriorated over the weekend with his positive test for Covid. It is simply not possible to continue the trial in his absence.’

The judge added: ‘I therefore adjourn the case. It will not be possible to sit again this week. It will not be possible to resume the trial until Monday November 8.

‘We will then resume in the hope that we would finish over the next two weeks that follow. I would like to be kept abreast of Mr Hutchings’ recovery just to confirm we are on track for the target date of November 8.’

The trial has heard that Mr Hutchings does not accept he fired any shots as he denied the charges of attempted murder of Mr Cunningham, who was fatally shot as he ran away from an Army patrol in a field near Benburb in 1974.  

The court 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 ‘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 a year later, on June 15, 1974, a defence barrister said Hutchings accepted he was in the field where the incident happened but nothing else.

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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 earlier this month, the prosecution contended the individual referred to as soldier A in the statements was 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.

Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, wearing a jacket with military medals pinned to the left breast, sat in the dock during the second day of the trial and listened to proceedings through a headset.

Judge O’Hara later questioned Mr Lewis on the extent of 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 Hutchings only fired ‘warning shots’ in order to make him ‘comply with a lawful order to halt’.

Responding, Mr Lewis explained that would only be the defence position if the prosecution could establish Hutchings had a case to answer. He said it was for the prosecution to prove 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, 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, Hutchings was facing a charge of attempted murder.

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