David Holden, a former British soldier who was found guilty in November 2022 of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in 1988, received a three-year prison sentence suspended for three years today, February 2.
Holden was found guilty on November 25 of the manslaughter of 23-year-old Aidan McAnespie, who was shot in the back near a checkpoint in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, while on his way to a GAA match on February 21, 1988.
Holden, who was 18 years old and serving with the Grenadier Guards at the time of McAnepsie's manslaughter, was the first former British soldier to be convicted of a historical offense since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
During his non-jury trial at Belfast Crown Court, Holden denied the charge of gross negligent manslaughter. He claimed the shooting was "accidental," stating that his hands were wet at the time, adding that his finger had only been on the trigger for "seconds."
Holden admitted firing three rounds but said he did not know if he hit McAnespie, who was unarmed, because he could no longer see the 23-year-old.
He confirmed that he had checked McAnespie's car registration and identified him as a "person of interest."
Ultimately, Justice O'Hara said he was satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that Holden was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, adding that the ex-soldier should have appreciated the consequences of his actions the moment he pulled the trigger. The judge added that Holden gave a "deliberately false account" of what happened.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that Justice O’Hara outlined some of his findings in how he reached his guilty verdict on Thursday: “The defendant was 18 years old when he killed Aidan McAnespie in February 1988, almost 35 years ago.
“The defendant had been convicted of manslaughter and not murder. That verdict is based on the fact that he did not intend to kill or cause serious harm.
“However, he was grossly negligent because, wrongly assuming the gun was not cocked, he aimed at Mr. McAnespie and deliberately pulled the trigger.
“The fact that the gun was cocked and ready to fire was the fault of others who were in the upper part of the sangar before him.
“The defendant could not know just from looking at the gun whether it was cocked, but that very fact should have told him not to pull the trigger.”
Justice O’Hara said that it would have been “helpful” if Holden took the opportunity to express remorse during the context of contesting the case.
He also referenced the victim impact statements, which he said “describe the devastating effect which Aidan’s killing had on the whole extended family, how it changed their lives and how hugely challenging it has been over decades to recover.”
Passing the three-year suspended sentence, Justice O’Hara said he did so as Holden had a clear criminal record and he had a positive work record.
The judge told Holden: “I must explain to you that if you commit another offence within the next three years which is punishable by imprisonment, a court may order you to serve the three-year sentence for the killing of Aidan McAnespie irrespective of what sentence is imposed for the further offence."
Speaking after the sentencing was passed, Aidan's brother Sean McAnespie said on Thursday: "The suspended sentence is disappointing, but the most important point is that David Holden was found guilty of the unlawful killing of our brother Aidan.
"We are glad we had our day in court. David Holden could have given an honest account of what happened that day but didn't. The judge was clear he had given a deliberately false version of events.
"Prior to his killing, Aidan suffered extensive harassment from the security forces for over ten years.
"Not a day passes when we don't miss Aidan.
"He (Holden) had a chance at the start of this trial to come out and tell the truth and admit what he done. He dragged us through the courts for years. We lost our father and sister in the duration of that.
"We weren't looking for a pound of flesh. We were looking for truth and justice."
Aidan McAnespie and the UK's Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill
The McAnespie family and Amnesty International UK held a press conference outside Laganside Court after the sentence was handed down on Thursday where they commented on the outcome in light of the UK's proposed Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.
Gráinne Teggart, Amnesty International UK’s Deputy Director in Northern Ireland, said: “This case shows that accountability before the law is still possible and must continue.
"It is vital the UK government shelves its Troubles Bill so other families can also get justice.
“Justice delayed does not need to be justice denied, but that’s what many victims will face if the Government continues with its gross betrayal by closing down all paths to justice.
“The Government’s claim that the bill is about delivering for victims is completely disingenuous. Recent proposed amendments pretend to answer people’s concerns but as the overwhelming opposition demonstrates, no one is buying it.
"It is not too late to put victims at the centre of legacy processes and vindicate their rights.”
Amnesty International pointed out that Holden's sentencing comes in the same week that the bill returned to the House of Lords (January 31) for further deliberation. If passed, the bill will introduce a de facto amnesty for serious crimes committed during the Northern Ireland conflict, which Amnesty International says will permanently deny other victims and their families justice.
The bill has been firmly rejected by victims and victims’ rights groups, Amnesty, Northern Ireland political parties, and the Irish government, as well as prompting serious concern from the US Congress, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteurs, and the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights.
David Holden has received a three year suspended sentence for the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie.
This case shows that accountability before the law is still possible. It is vital the UK government shelves its Troubles Bill so other families can also get justice. https://t.co/WarC5KUmiE— Amnesty Ireland (@AmnestyIreland) February 2, 2023