Dennis Hutchings, the former British soldier who was facing trial for the death of John Patrick Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974, has died after contracting COVID. Hutchings was 80 years old.
The Northern Ireland Veterans Movement confirmed the death of Hutchings, who had been part of a campaign to stop prosecutions of military veterans, on Twitter on October 18:
We ask that everyone give the Hutchings family space at this time and to respect their privacy while they come to terms with this tragic news.— Northern Ireland Veterans Movement (@MarchJfniv) October 18, 2021
Further details will be posted at a later date.
Rest in peace dear friend.
British MP Johnny Mercer, who accompanied Hutchings to his trial in Belfast in recent weeks, said on Twitter that Hutchings was “determined to prove his innocence against the unrelenting efforts of those who wish to rewrite the history of conflict in Northern Ireland against his generation of servicemen and women who bled to keep the peace.”
Hutchings, a native of Cornwall and a veteran of the Life Guards regiment, had been charged with the attempted murder of 27-year-old John Patrick Cunningham, who had severe learning disabilities, in Co Tyrone in 1974 during The Troubles. He was also charged with one count of attempted previous bodily harm with intent. Hutchings denied both charges.
On October 15, it was announced that the non-jury trial in Belfast was to be adjourned as Hutchings, who had heart failure and was receiving dialysis three times a week for kidney disease, was in ill health and was to be hospitalized. On Monday, the court heard that Hutchings had tested positive for COVID and the trial would be adjourned until at least November. Hutchings died later that day.
Following the death of Hutchings, KRW Law in Belfast issued a statement on October 19 in which John Pat Cunningham's family acknowledged that the Hutchings family "should be given time to grieve."
"When the time is judged appropriate, the family will respond in more detail to the issues surrounding the prosecution of Dennis Hutchings," the statement says.
However, it continued: "In the meantime, it is important to correct the false and factually inaccurate claims that have been made in the media by some political leaders. It should be noted that none of those who have commented have actually attended the trial and are clearly unaware of the actual facts of the case.
"We respectfully remind the public of the facts that were pronounced at the trial, which were uncontested."
The statement outlines the following points as facts in the case:
- John Pat Cunningham was shot and killed by 3 bullets fired by a British Army patrol on 15 June 1974, in a field in Carickaness Road, Benburb County Tyrone.
- He was shot through the back and shoulder and endured an injury to his right hand.
- He was described by a doctor to have been born with an incomplete development of the mind and was declared to be a person requiring Special Care within the meaning of Part 3 of the Mental Health 1948. In today’s society would perhaps be described as a vulnerable adult.
- He was said to have had the mind of a 7-year-old. He was known to be anxious and fearful around men in uniforms, and was known to have run from army, police, and Priests.
- A British Army patrol came across John Pat, which was led by Dennis Hutchings. He was in the front seat of the vehicle and was the first to get out. He chased John Pat into a field, closely followed by another soldier.
- John Pat was shot in the back from a distance of 90 metres.
- Soldier E, who was in the rear of the landrover, made a statement to say that he saw Hutchings follow John Pat into the field. Soldier E stated “By the time I reached the gate, Solider A (Hutchings) had already climbed over and was standing in the field.” Soldier E saw Hutchings stop in the middle of the field and said that he warned John Pat to halt, and that when John Pat kept running, that Hutchings cocked his rifle. Soldier E said he heard 3 or 4 shots and John Pat fell to the ground. Soldier E said he could state who fired their gun.
- Upon the attendance of the Royal Military Police, the weapons of the soldiers who fired them, were seized. Sergeant Alan Mews seized the Self Loading Rifle serial number 59A.25891 with Sute sight number 5312 and magazine from Dennis Hutchings. When examined, the magazine was found to have only 17 bullets, from 20. This means that Dennis Hutchings fired 3 shots.
- Sergeant Mews also seized the Self Loading Rifle serial number UB60 A81084 with Sute sight number 5263 and magazine from Soldier B. When examined, the magazine was found to have only 18 bullets, from 20, which means that Solider B fired 2 shots.
- A report from RUC Detective Sergeant McBurney dated 10 October 1974, found that from the locations where spent cases were found at the scene, they indicated that Soldier A (Hutchings) had fired 3 shots and Soldier B had fired twice.
The statement continues:
- It is factually inaccurate to claim that Dennis Hutchings had previously stood trial in connection with the death of John Pat Cunningham as has been claimed in the media.
- It is factually inaccurate to claim that the killing resulted in an Article 2 ECHR compliant investigation. Nothing could be further from the truth, as emerged at trial.
- It follows that it is factually inaccurate to claim that Dennis Hutchings had been ‘cleared’ in any previous investigation since no proper investigation took place until recently.
- It is factually inaccurate to allege that this prosecution was politically motivated and part of a fictitious ‘witch-hunt’ against British soldiers. This claim by senior politicians impugns the professional integrity, independence and impartiality of those involved in the recent investigation and prosecution.
- It is factually inaccurate to claim that the shooting of John Pat Cunningham was as the result of a ‘split second’ decision. Anyone who actually followed the evidence would have been aware of this.
The statement concludes: "Many people will have noted that much of the negative reaction to this case within unionism and in sections of the British press has been determined by the fact that John Pat Cunningham, who posed no threat whatsoever, was an Irish Catholic.
"It is the status of the victim that has framed the reaction not the detail of the case. Shame on them."