‘Spiteful’ prosecutors tried to use 1957 assault to blacken name of veteran Dennis Hutchings

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Prosecutors tried to add a 64-year-old minor conviction as ‘bad character’ evidence against a British Army veteran as he lay dying of Covid in hospital to try and bolster their Troubles case against him.

Dennis Hutchings, 80, was already struggling to breathe and suffering from terminal kidney failure and heart disease when he flew to Belfast to be tried over the alleged attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in County Tyrone in 1974. 

On Monday before he was rushed to hospital with coronavirus Public Prosecution Service Northern Ireland tried to introduce the assault conviction when he was a teenager to their case.

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The minor offence saw Mr Hutchings fined just £2 at the time back in 1957.

His lawyer Philip Barden, a senior partner at Devonshires Solicitor, told MailOnline: ‘He had to defend himself when they charged him. Even when he was dying the prosecution were in court trying to bring up something to use as bad character. It was spiteful.

‘They had lodged an application to introduce a 1957 conviction he had for hitting someone.

‘Dennis was an extremely brave man. He was very principled and he was acting in the interest of others.

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‘He could have stopped the process for him at any time, but he thought it was important no-one again should have to go through what he went through. 

Army veteran Dennis Hutchings, 80, died on Monday night after catching Covid-19 midway through his controversial trial for a fatal Troubles shooting almost 50 years ago

Army veteran Dennis Hutchings, 80, died on Monday night after catching Covid-19 midway through his controversial trial for a fatal Troubles shooting almost 50 years ago

John Pat Cunningham

Dennis Hutchings

Mr Hutchings (right) was being prosecuted over the death of John Cunningham in 1974

‘He did that in the hope of forcing the Government to protect the veterans that acted for their country.

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‘He could have stopped it at any time, say he was not well enough to stand trial, but he didn’t want that because he was innocent and wanted to clear his name.

‘I am sure he could have medical reports that said he could not stand trial.

‘He was on borrowed time, he had outlived his life expectancy, he had significant medical problems. He was always going to die like this. 

‘I saw him on Sunday and he said that he was okay, he had had his dialysis but by then knew he had Covid. 

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‘Before he died he was suing the PSNI for wrongful arrest, that could continue. It is up to his family if that continues. 

‘He was always going to die like this – but it should have been preventable.’

His case was one of two ongoing prosecutions of Northern Ireland veterans who served during the Troubles despite government plans announced in the summer to end all criminal and civil cases relating to deaths during the 30-year conflict. The proposals are yet to be implemented and were met with fierce backlash on both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide.  

Dennis Hutchings (pictured on the far right in this photo) in Germany, 1960

Dennis Hutchings (pictured on the far right in this photo) in Germany, 1960

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Over the weekend, Mr Hutchings contracted Covid and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance last night after complaining that he was struggling to breathe

Dennis Hutchings in dress uniform at Knightsbridge Barracks, 1978

Over the weekend, Mr Hutchings contracted Covid and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance last night after complaining that he was struggling to breathe. Right: Hutchings in dress uniform at Knightsbridge Barracks, 1978

Mr Hutchings was accompanied to his trial by friend and MP Johnny Mercer who flew with him to Ireland for the case

Mr Hutchings was accompanied to his trial by friend and MP Johnny Mercer who flew with him to Ireland for the case

Dennis Hutchings: Army veteran pursued over historic Northern Ireland allegations… for which there was no proof

Mr Hutchings was facing trial over the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham.

He was shot running from a British Army patrol in Benburb, Co Tyrone, back in June 1974.

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The man was said to have been ‘startled’ by the soldiers and then made off from the scene.

Mr Hutchings, who required kidney dialysis twice a week and has heart problems, was in the British Army for 26 years. He served five tours of Northern Ireland when the Troubles were at their worst.

The former corporal major was cleared twice over the events which took place in the mid-1970s.

In 1975 he got a letter sent to his regiment informing him that prosecutors had decided that no action would be taken against anyone over Mr Cunningham’s death.

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Then in 2011 an Historical Enquiries Team review said there was no new evidence that would prompt any further legal action.

Despite no fresh evidence, no witnesses and no new forensic leads, the retired soldier was accused again of attempted murder.

In 2015 the Legacy Investigation Branch conducted a new investigation into Mr Cunningham’s death.

It led to Mr Hutchings being arrested and taken to a police station in Northern Ireland where he was interviewed.

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He answered ‘no comment’ and was later charged with two offences: the attempted murder of Mr Cunningham and attempting to cause him grievous bodily harm. 

In 2019, Hutchings lost a Supreme Court bid to have the trial heard by a jury.

Then it had originally been scheduled to commence in March 2020 but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The veteran sat in the dock in Belfast on alternate days so he could receive gruelling kidney dialysis treatment. Over the weekend, he contracted Covid, and the trial had been adjourned for three weeks. However, last night he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance after complaining that he was struggling to breathe. His condition deteriorated and he later died. 

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Mr Hutchings had been cleared twice over the shooting and was told he would not be prosecuted in the months after Mr Cunningham’s death following an initial investigation, and again in 2011 when the case was reviewed. However, it was reopened by the Legacy Investigation Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2015 and he was arrested and taken from his home in Cornwall to Northern Ireland for questioning. 

Prosecutors previously told Belfast Crown Court that they had no direct evidence to prove whether the fatal shot was fired by Mr Hutchings or another soldier. Mr Hutchings, a great grandfather, also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent. 

At a hearing in March last year his legal team argued that the trial should be held in England because of concerns for his health and the threat of Covid. Mr Hutchings had appealed to the courts to bring the case forward because he had been warned he could have a heart attack at any moment. 

He eventually flew to Belfast on October 3 for the trial, supported by former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer. 

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Mr Mercer, himself a former soldier, urged the Ministry of Defence to fly the 80-year-old back to England so he could be near his family until the trial resumed. He had said the MoD had a duty of care, adding: ‘I cannot believe we are putting a dying man through this grotesque process.’ 

Defence barrister James Lewis QC had informed Belfast Crown Court Mr Hutchings was ill as proceedings in the non-jury trial were due to begin on Monday. 

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

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

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Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

He was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. 

John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead during an Army operation near the village of Benburb on June 15, 1974. Mr Hutchings maintained he only fired aimed warning shots into the air

John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead during an Army operation near the village of Benburb on June 15, 1974. Mr Hutchings maintained he only fired aimed warning shots into the air

Sitting in a crown court dock in Belfast this month, service medals pinned to his chest, Mr Hutchings somehow maintained his dignified stoicism

Sitting in a crown court dock in Belfast this month, service medals pinned to his chest, Mr Hutchings somehow maintained his dignified stoicism

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The former member of the Life Guards regiment, from Cawsand in Cornwall, had denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

He had already been cleared of any wrongdoing twice. 

In 1975 he got a letter sent to his regiment informing him that prosecutors had decided that no action would be taken against anyone over Mr Cunningham’s death.

Then in 2011 an Historical Enquiries Team review said there was no new evidence that would prompt any further legal action. 

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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.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it was ‘desperately sad news’.

On Twitter, he said: ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the Hutchings family. We have said all along that Dennis should never have been brought to trial again, not least because of his health but also a lack of compelling new evidence.

‘There are serious questions to answer here.’

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In a statement, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister said: ‘The needless dragging of an 80-year-old soldier, Dennis Hutchings, through the courts has had a very sad end with the passing of Mr Hutchings this evening.

‘The strain on this man was cruel, with him requiring regular dialysis, while being brought to Belfast to face a trial of dubious provenance.

‘My thoughts and prayers tonight are with his family and friends who may understandably feel that what he was put through contributed to his decline.’ 

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie called for a ‘full and thorough’ review into the decision-making of the Public Prosecution Service.

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‘I would like to convey my sincere condolences to Mr Hutchings’ family and friends,’ Mr Beattie said.

‘The decision by the Public Prosecution Service to proceed with a trial given his ill-health demands a full and thorough independent review. The questions must be asked, did this trial hasten Mr Hutchings’ death and did it meet the evidential and public interest tests?’

Danny Kinahan, the Veterans Commissioner for Northern Ireland, said that the news was ‘incredibly sad’.

On Twitter, he wrote: ‘I got to know Dennis over recent years. An elderly man, in poor health, he was determined to clear his name once and for all. Deepest condolences & sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time.’

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DUP MP Carla Lockhart also described the news as ‘awful’. 

She tweeted: ‘Such sad news that he never got to live out his last days in peace. Awful. Spent last months of his life being hounded by a political show trial.’

Critics of the plans to prosecute Northern Ireland veterans have cited the alleged hounding of soldiers who served in the province, while IRA terrorists were released early from prison or told they would not be prosecuted for Troubles-related offences following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Great-grandfather Mr Hutchings was supported in court by his partner of 25 years, Kim, last week, and son John, however the pair returned to England when his trial was postponed following his Covid diagnosis. 

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Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead during an Army operation near the village of Benburb on June 15, 1974. Mr Hutchings maintained he only fired aimed warning shots into the air.  

The trial heard that prosecutors were unable to prove whether Mr Hutchings or another soldier, now dead, fired the fatal shots, as no forensic evidence was collected. 

Mr Hutchings, who was in the Life Guards, had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder. He also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

What is the timeline of the Northern Ireland troubles and peace process? 

Police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, 1998

Police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, 1998

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August 1969

British Government first send troops into Northern Ireland after three days of rioting in Catholic Londonderry.

30 January 1972

On ‘Bloody Sunday’  13 civilians are shot dead by the British Army during a civil rights march in Londonderry.

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March 1972

The Stormont Government is dissolved and direct rule imposed by London. 

1970s

The IRA begin its bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations in Britain. 

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April 1981

Bobby Sands, a republicans on hunger strike in the Maze prison, is elected to Parliament. He dies a month later.

October 1984

An IRA bomb explodes at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher is staying during the Tory Party. conference

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Early 1990s

Margaret Thatcher and then Sir John Major set up a secret back channel with the IRA to start peace talks. The communications was so secret most ministers did not know about it. 

April 1998

Tony Blair helps to broker the Good Friday Agreement, which is hailed as the end of the Troubles. 

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It establishes the Northern Ireland Assembly with David Trimble as its first minister.

2000s

With some exceptions the peace process holds and republican and loyalist paramilitaries decommission their weapons.

May 2011

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The Queen and Prince Philip make a state visit to Ireland, the first since the 1911 tour by George V. 

In a hugely symbolic moment, the Queen is pictured shaking hands with Martin McGuinness – a former IRA leader.

 

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