Author Topic: The Trial of Dennis Hutchings  (Read 11 times)

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Offline QCChevalier

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The Trial of Dennis Hutchings
« on: September 11, 2020, 10:14:PM »
Dennis Hutchings was a Lane Corporal of Horse - equivalent to full corporal rank - in the Life Guards regiment.  He was stationed in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

In June 1974, in Benburb, County Tyrone, Mr Hutchings shot dead a youth called John Paul Cunningham whom he had seen running away after encountering Mr Hutchings' unit.  It turned out that John was running in the direction of home.

Mr Hutchings is charged with attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent, in regard to the death of John Cunningham.

An interesting issue raised by this case is that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland has exercised a power, under section 1(1) of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, to decide that there will be a bench trial.  It is not clear why, and the ground for doing so is quite broad: the interests of the administration of justice.  It may be due to concerns about a fair trial if an attempt is made to empanel a jury in Northern Ireland, or there may be security considerations. 

This decision by the DPP of Northern Ireland was subject to a 2017 application for judicial review, which reached the UK Supreme Court in 2019.  Ultimately, the application was denied.

At some point, Mr Hutchings also attempted to have the prosecution stayed as an abuse of process.  This action also failed.  There was also a High Court discrimination claim brought this year by Mr Hutchings against the UK government, claiming discrimination against former servicemen by the Northern Ireland criminal justice system.  This action likewise failed.

The legal saga then proceeded to trial, however Mr Hutchings is 77 and terminally-ill and the trial is now indeterminately adjourned.

The alleged victim, John Cunningham, was an unarmed man who, it is believed, was running home after encountering an Army patrol.  He was shot without any apparent justification.  It is said that John had learning difficulties, but I am not sure that is relevant, actually.  Mr Hutchings was not to know of John's capacity to understand the situation and John was clearly not a child.  The issue is whether firing on John can be excused in law in that situation.

Given the circumstances and the gravity of the allegations, I would normally have liked to see the trial go ahead.  However, in view of Mr Hutchings' health situation and advanced years, I think a criminal trial is now difficult to justify.  It's not that I have any sympathy for Mr Hutchings - I think soldiers who kill unarmed people should face the music - but I think his age and health make the whole exercise seem rather academic, frankly.

Mr Hutchings, who lives in Cornwall, is anyway having difficulties attending court in Belfast, and there is now talk of a 'virtual trial' (as in the Harry Dunn case), which I find ridiculous.  If the accused cannot attend the trial, then either the authorities must find a solution that involves bringing the trial to the accused (normally that means taking the accused into custody, if that can be justified, or shifting the trial venue somewhere nearer) or the proceedings must be discontinued. 

In theory, a Northern Irish case could be conducted in Truro under Northern Irish law before an English jury.  Why not?  There's analogous precedent for it under other legal systems, I'm sure.  It would solve all the procedural and logistical problems.  But I think proceedings should be discontinued anyway, due to Mr Hutchings' age and circumstances, and I think the authorities have also lost the moral high ground somewhat insisting on a Devlin-style bench trial.
« Last Edit: September 12, 2020, 10:20:AM by QCChevalier »