The facts: What we know about the case against the late Dennis Hutchings over the 1974 killing of John Pat Cunningham (as set out by the Supreme Court)

Following the collapse of the trial of ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings for the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham, the News Letter here recaps exactly what the case involves.

Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 5:01 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 5:51 pm
Dennis Hutchings in 2019

The essential details of the case were set out in the UK Supreme Court on June 6, 2019, by Lord Kerr – one of the highest judges in the land.

He was making a ruling dismissing Dennis Hutchings’ efforts to have a jury try his case, rather than a judge hearing it alone (a scenario known as a Diplock trial, which is the default arrangement for most Troubles cases).

In doing so, Lord Kerr set out the following facts:

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“On Saturday June 15, 1974, in the late morning, an army patrol consisting of two military vehicles was travelling towards Benburb, Co Tyrone.

“The vehicles contained members of the Life Guards regiment. The lead vehicle had six men on board.

“The commander of the patrol, who was travelling in that vehicle, was Dennis Hutchings...

“As the patrol rounded a left-hand bend near a village called Eglish on what was a winding road, a young man came into view, standing on the left-hand side of the road.

“He appeared to be looking into the hedge at the side of the road. His name was John Paul Cunningham.

“Mr Cunningham appeared startled and confused. He ran across the road in front of the lead vehicle and climbed a gate into a neighbouring field. He then ran towards a metal fence which bordered the field.

“The patrol came to a halt on [Mr Hutchings’] command.

“Most of the soldiers dismounted from the vehicles and took up defensive positions.

“Three members of the patrol, [Mr Hutchings] and two others who have been referred to as B and E, pursued Mr Cunningham.

“Mr Hutchings and soldier E went towards the same gate that Mr Cunningham had climbed over.

“Soldier B went to a gateway further down the road. A number of shouted commands to Mr Cunningham to stop went unheeded.

“It later transpired that he had limited intellectual capacity. His mental age was judged to be between six and 10 years.

“In a report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) it was said that he ‘was easily confused and may have had an inherent fear of men in uniform and armoured vehicles’.

“The case made by the prosecution is that when Mr Cunningham failed to stop, shots were discharged by [Mr Hutchings] and the soldier referred to as B.

“Mr Cunningham was hit and died at the scene. At the time that he fell, he was close to the metal fence. It has been established that he was running towards his home.

“The HET concluded after investigation that he was unarmed; that he was shot while running away from the soldiers, and that there was no evidence that he presented a threat to them or to anyone else.”

Mr Hutchings had been unwell with kidney problems for some time, and had also contracted Covid-19.

Alongside the trial of Soldier F for alleged crimes committed on Bloody Sunday, Mr Hutchings’ case had stirred the ire of unionist politicians and veterans groups, who pointed to the far greater death toll inflicted by paramilitaries during the Troubles when compared with the Army.

The trial of Soldier F ended with the two murder charges and five attempted murder charges against him being withdrawn in July, over legal wranglings to do with the admissibility of evidence.

Now Mr Hutchings’ trial has collapsed too, due to his death on Monday night in north Belfast’s Mater Hospital.

A group called The Northern Ireland Veterans Movement announced the news online, calling him “our brave friend Regimental Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings”.

The case began back in 2013, when the then-head of the PPS Barra McGrory had requested that the Cunningham killing be reviewed.

Legal action began in April 2015 against Mr Hutchings, who lived in the village of Cawsands outside Plymouth in Cornwall, and who was 74 at the time proceedings got underway.

Seven months later, after the PPS had reviewed the strength of the case, it determined that “there is a reasonable prospect of conviction and that the test for prosecution is met”, and said it would proceed with charges against him.

In the several years of hearings which followed, there was much dispute over whether he should be charged with attempted murder or attempted GBH, or whether charges should be dropped altogether (he could not be charged with outright murder because it was uncertain which soldier had fired the fatal shots).

At the time of his death, Mr Hutchings was charged with – and denied – both offences.

More on this case:

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Ben Lowry