Trial of former soldier could take place over Skype

The trial of a former British soldier over a fatal shooting during the Northern Ireland Troubles may take place over Skype, a court has heard.

A lawyer for Dennis Hutchings applied for an adjournment over concerns that the 79-year-old would not be able to attend his trial in person for health reasons.

Belfast Crown Court was told that Hutchings is receiving medical treatment and his doctor said it is not safe for him to travel.

Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, a former member of the Life Guards regiment, has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old man with learning difficulties, was shot in the back as he ran away from an Army patrol near Benburb.

Hutchings, who is on dialysis twice a week for renal failure, is facing charges of attempted murder and attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Dennis Hutchings court case
Former British soldier Dennis Hutchings is on dialysis twice a week for renal failure and is concerned about the coronavirus (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Judge Mr Justice O’Hara told the court on Friday that a video-link will allow Hutchings to participate fully in the trial and that the court could sit two days a week if the accused is willing to participate in the trial by Skype.

Defence lawyer Ian Turkington said however that there could be a visibility challenge.

He said his client wants to be present in court for his trial, adding that there is no suggestion that the pensioner is using his illness as a “tool to delay” the proceedings.

Mr Justice O’Hara said: “Let’s get on with it.”

Mr Turkington told the court: “It’s not safe for him to travel. The consultant said he should not travel and the reason for that is clear – between buses, trains, airports, airplanes and hotels, and backwards and forwards.

“He would prefer to be here for his trial. If the court insists that (Skype) is the way forward … but it is not his expressed wish.”

The trial was also delayed last week over concerns for Hutchings’ health and the threat of coronavirus.

Mr Justice O’Hara said on Friday that the country is potentially weeks away from the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak and asking for further delay could see the trial put back to September.

The judge added that a few months’ delay is significant as the defendant is 79 and the shooting happened decades ago.

The defence lawyer said the court would have to look at “all eventualities and possibilities”.

“These are serious allegation against a man of good character,” Mr Turkington added.

“To face these in his living room somewhere in England is not the preferred method of standing trial.

“We are in uncharted territory.”

Mr Turkington asked the judge for a delay to consider the steps needed for his client to participate in a trial through Skype.

The judge adjourned the case to Monday March 23.

Meanwhile, the case of two former paratroopers accused of shooting an Official IRA man in Belfast in 1972 has been put back.

Soldiers A and C have been charged with murdering Joe McCann, who died close to his home in the Markets area of Belfast.

The case has been adjourned until April 3 for arraignment.

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