Londonderry man who died in riot was not hit by plastic bullet

A Londonderry man previously believed to have died from head injuries caused by a rubber bullet was likely to have been injured by other means, a coroner has found.

Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 3:10 pm
Thomas Friel

Thomas Friel, 21, died in hospital in May 1973 four days after being injured during rioting in the Creggan area of the city.

A fresh inquest has found he was likely struck by masonry during an altercation between youths and soldiers which caused him to fall and sustain a further injury.

Coroner Joe McCrisken concluded at Londonderry court house following a “long and difficult exercise”, hampered by the issue of memories of the incident almost 50 years ago, that he was not satisfied Mr Friel had been struck by a rubber baton round.

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In lengthy findings, Mr McCrisken was also critical of the original police investigation over its assessment of the timing of the injury.

“I am satisfied to the required standard considering the opinions of all of the pathologists and applying my own, not inconsiderable experience as a death investigator, that Thomas Friel sustained three separate injuries to his head,” he said.

“The first was a blow to the left side of the forehead, I consider it most likely that this injury was caused by Mr Friel having been struck by a missile of some sort during a disturbance involving a crowd of youths and the army.

“The first injury, to the left side of the forehead, was caused by, in my view on balance, a missile, a piece of masonry, something of that nature during the disturbance.

“I am satisfied that Thomas Friel was highly intoxicated when he arrived at Creggan Heights… I am satisfied that while in Creggan Heights he was with the crowd who were involved in stoning the army patrol.

“It is more likely than not that this injury to the front of his head caused him to fall to the ground… I am satisfied it was of sufficient force to cause Thomas Friel to fall to the ground, possibly unconscious, but he fell, struck the left side of his head and face… this accelerated fall on to probably the road surface caused the left sided fracture of his skull… bleeding and brain damage, to the left and right side.

“There was a third injury to the top of the skull, perhaps caused by a fall or perhaps caused by a missile.”

Mr McCrisken said the scene was likely to have been “fast paced, frenzied and chaotic”.

He added: “At least two, and probably more than two, rubber batons were discharged striking at least two people. I am not persuaded based upon the evidence that I have heard that Thomas Friel was struck with a rubber baton round. It is of course possible that he may have been, but I do not consider this as the most likely scenario based on the evidence which I have heard.”

Mr Friel’s family, who long campaigned for a fresh inquest, contending he was injured by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier, are being supported by the Pat Finucane Centre.

The centre tweeted that the family will consider the findings.