The role of the Public Prosecution Service in legacy cases ‘now a major issue for DUP in Stormont talks’

Former soldier Dennis Hutchings is accused over the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham in 1974
Former soldier Dennis Hutchings is accused over the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham in 1974

A leading outgoing DUP MP has said the decision of prosecutors to reinstate an attempted murder charge against an elderly soldier raises questions about their impartiality.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was reacting to news that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) intends to proceed with the charge against Dennis Hutchings, 75, over the shooting of John-Pat Cunningham in 1974.

Scales of justice.

Scales of justice.

In March a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the charge.

The PPS decision to reinstate it has sparked an outcry, with outgoing UUP MP Danny Kinahan (see links below) calling for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Barra McGrory to quit.

Sir Jeffrey, writing in the News Letter today (see links below), said: “Dennis Hutchings has twice been investigated in this case and twice told he had no case to answer. Recently, an experienced district judge ruled that Dennis should not stand trial for attempted murder.”

The Lagan Valley candidate added: “The decision of the PPS to go against the judge raises serious questions about their impartiality and there are many in the community who are now losing confidence in the ability of the PPS to take a balanced approach to legacy cases, myself included.”

He said the role of the PPS in legacy matters was now an issue in DUP Stormont talks.

A PPS spokesperson said yesterday: “While there has been some political commentary over the recent period, political considerations play no part in any decision taken by the PPS.

“Our decision-making is fair, independent and impartial and is not influenced by improper or undue pressure from any source, in line with the Code for Prosecutors.”

John-Pat Cunningham, who had learning difficulties, was shot dead by an Army patrol as he ran away near the village of Benburb in June 1974.

Jim Allister QC MLA described the PPS decision to bring back the attempted murder charge as “unnecessary, high-handed and unusual”.

In March, District Judge Alan White said there was “ample evidence” that Hutchings might have fired three shots at Mr Cunningham but went on to explain why he was dismissing the attempted murder charge.

Judge White said: “When considering the circumstances the soldiers found themselves in and the time they had to reach a decision, I can’t see that any reasonable jury, properly directed, could find beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to kill the deceased as opposed to causing him grievous bodily harm.”

At a Belfast Crown Court hearing on Friday, it emerged that the attempted murder charge was being brought back. The case was put back until next month.

The PPS spokesperson said yesterday: “The indictment in this case includes the charge of attempted murder to be heard at the Crown Court, which we consider to be the appropriate level for these matters to be determined.

“As this case is before the court it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Trevor Ringland, the ex-Ireland rugby international and unionist politician, said: “We cannot bring prosecutions against individual, often low-ranking members of the security forces – ordinary squaddies who found themselves in a difficult situation – without putting terrorist leaders on trial. That should mean some leading members of Sinn Fein going to jail.”

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