To the bitter end, Dennis Hutchings vowed to clear his name. At 3pm on Monday afternoon, he was sitting alone in his Belfast hotel when the Daily Mail called.
His trial for attempted murder – six-and-a-half years on from his arrest during a previously happy retirement – had been adjourned that morning after he contracted Covid and was forced into isolation.
Aged 80 and requiring kidney dialysis three times a week, the diagnosis was particularly worrying news. ‘I’m not feeling too bad,’ he began, attempting to maintain the stiff upper lip 26 years in the Army had given him.
But then for a moment he faltered, and admitted: ‘Actually, I’m not feeling good.’
He was unusually subdued, with the television in the Hilton bedroom blaring – perhaps an attempt to drown out the loneliness of Covid-enforced seclusion.
Sensing his frailty, I wondered whether he could proceed with the trial over a shooting death during the Troubles in 1974. It was due to resume on November 8 following his anticipated recovery.
Former soldier Dennis Hutchings waves as he arrives to the Belfast Crown court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on October 4, for his trial for attempted murder. He died before the trial concluded
After all, his hospital consultant back home in Cornwall had offered to write him a letter which would have saved him travelling to Northern Ireland just days before the hearing and his health had certainly deteriorated.
But, determined to see it through, he told me: ‘Yes, of course…as long as I get better, I’ll fight on.’
Mr Hutchings pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham who was shot in County Tyrone 47 years ago
Within five hours, he was dead, alone in a Covid ward in an unfamiliar hospital in an unfamiliar city. That morning, the former colour sergeant had refused to go to hospital despite struggling for breath and complaining of chest pains.
‘That’s where people go to die,’ he told his solicitor Philip Barden defiantly.
By early evening, he had packed his bags and was awaiting the arrival of an ambulance, resigned to the gravity of his situation.
He had been given six months to live in September so his death was perhaps not a surprise, but his swift deterioration was still shocking.
Friends noted that, owing to the trial, he was forced to fly on a plane from Bristol to Belfast, live in a hotel and visit a new hospital to undergo dialysis – all potential Covid breeding grounds.
In truth, the trial itself had become a morbid spectacle that even Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service – forced to defend itself for proceeding with the case yesterday – would have wished to avoid, such was the publicity owing to Mr Hutchings’ health issues.
With the court sitting three times a week so the soldier could undergo medical treatment, by day four Mr Hutchings was allowed to leave after feeling unwell. On the sixth day, proceedings were adjourned after he was taken to hospital and he died on what would have been the seventh day of his trial.
Wearing his service medals throughout, he sat in a smart suit in the dock each day with a hearing loop, but struggled to maintain concentration.
He appeared to doze off several times and had to be nudged awake by a dock officer. At one point, a police officer involved in the case raised concerns about the defendant’s ability to ‘follow proceedings.’ Yet it continued.
Even as he fell gravely ill with Covid on Monday, the prosecution in the case attempted to introduce so-called ‘bad character’ evidence.
This was to counteract claims from a witness, Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, a former Army lieutenant colonel and later Tory MP for Wimbledon, that Mr Hutchings was the ‘epitome of the best class of a senior British non-commissioned officer.’
Dr Goodson-Wickes attended the aftermath of the shooting of John Pat Cunningham 47 years ago while serving as an Army doctor.
Mr Hutchings died before his trial for attempted murder concluded, leaving him unable to clear his name as he had vowed to do
Prosecutors said they would now seek to introduce a conviction for assault in 1957 – when Mr Hutchings was aged 16 or 17 and for which he was fined £2 – in an attempt to boost their attempted murder case.
Mr Barden said this sort of ‘spiteful and nasty conduct…needs to be called out and stopped’. In the end, they didn’t have the chance.
With Mr Hutchings no longer able to clear his name as he vowed, Mr Cunningham’s shooting still hangs over the tiny village of Benburb, County Tyrone, near the Irish border.
Wesley Thompson, now 86, worked in the field where the 27-year-old was shot dead and still lives nearby. He recalled him as a ‘harmless creature’ who would often visit the farm for stew.
But his thoughts on the ongoing prosecutions of soldiers involved in the Troubles is perhaps surprising. He told the Daily Mail they had a ‘difficult job’ up against a ‘ruthless group’ in the IRA.
He added: ‘I think they should scrap the whole damn thing and let them go.
‘It has been going on for years and we are no further on.’