Former RMP officer recalls taking rifle from accused veteran Dennis Hutchings

·4-min read

A Royal Military Police officer who attended the scene of a Troubles shooting has recalled taking a rifle from accused veteran Dennis Hutchings, but cannot confirm the weapon was his, a judge has heard.

Alan Mews gave evidence during the trial of the former soldier who is accused of the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

The 80-year old former member of the Life Guards regiment also denies a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

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.

Dennis Hutchings court case
John Pat Cunningham was shot dead in Co Tyrone in 1974 (Handout/PA)

Mr Mews attended the scene off the Carrickaness Road following the shooting on June 15 1974.

Giving evidence to Belfast Crown Court via video link, he said the only soldier he remembers speaking to specifically was Hutchings.

He said he took an SLR rifle from him – a weapon that had 17 of its capacity 20 bullets still in the magazine.

Judge Mr Justice O’Hara asked the witness whether the fact Hutchings handed him the weapon necessarily meant it was his weapon.

“No, your honour,” he replied.

“He gave me the weapon. I took the serial number from that weapon.

“Thereafter it would have been the SIB (RMP’s Special Investigation Branch) inquiry that would have looked at whether that weapon with that serial number would have been signed out by Mr Hutchings or another member of his patrol.”

Mr Mews said it was normal practice for individual weapons to be assigned to individual soldiers, but he told the court he was unable to confirm if that had definitely happened ahead of the incident in Benburb.

Dennis Hutchings court case
Dennis Hutchings, with supporters, arrives at Laganside Courts, Belfast (Mark Marlow/PA)

Hutchings, from Cawsand in Cornwall, sat in the dock and listened to proceedings through a headset.

The prosecution contend that Hutchings fired three shots at Mr Cunningham as he ran across the field and another soldier, who is now deceased, fired two.

As no bullets were recovered from the scene, the Crown has said it is not possible to prove which soldier fired the fatal shot that hit Mr Cunningham in the back – and for that reason Hutchings is facing a charge of attempted murder.

The third day of the non-jury trial in Belfast Crown Court also heard evidence from a second former member of the Royal Military Police.

John Cooper had been stationed in Northern Ireland from 1973-75 and again in 1979-81.

The court heard he had made signed statements about the incident, including to the original inquest in January 1975.

However, Mr Cooper said while he was aware of it but had “no recollection whatsoever” of it.

He said it had been a “long time ago”, adding: “I may add of all the incidents I was involved in in Northern Ireland, I recall virtually none of them.”

Earlier, Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that two sheets of notes and markings which appear to show the location of bullet casings, the position which Mr Cunningham’s body lay in and features of the field accompanying maps of the scene, were admissible as evidence.

The defence had raised an issue with the sheets, pointing out they were not signed by the police constable who had compiled two maps of the scene and not referred to in his statements, and as the officer has since died, is not available to give evidence on it.

However, after considering the arguments, Mr Justice O’Hara said it was “entirely fanciful” to suggest that “somehow for no apparent reason another individual intervened in the mapping exercise – that makes no sense, and I reject that possibility entirely”.

“On the evidence and submissions before me, I can see no injustice or unfairness to this defendant in this case in admitting in evidence the two sheets of notes which I am entirely satisfied were the work of Constable Hill,” he said.

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

The trial continues and is scheduled to sit again on Monday.

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