NI prosecutors drop case against ex-soldier accused of killing boy, 15, in 1972

2 July 2021, 12:24 | Updated: 2 July 2021, 14:35

Daniel Hegarty, 15, died after being shot in Londonderry/Derry in 1972
Daniel Hegarty, 15, died after being shot in Londonderry/Derry in 1972. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

The prosecution of two former soldiers for Troubles murders, including two on Bloody Sunday, are to be halted.

Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service has announced that the case against Soldier F for the murder of James Wray and William McKinney on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 will not proceed.

The prosecution of another veteran, Soldier B, for the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty in Derry later in 1972, will also not proceed, the PPS said.

The discontinuation of the high-profile prosecutions comes after the PPS reviewed the cases in light of a recent court ruling that caused the collapse of another Troubles murder trial involving two military veterans.

The Crown cases against both Soldier F and Soldier B hinged on evidence of a similar nature to that which was ruled inadmissible in April's trial of Soldier A and Soldier C for the 1972 murder of Official IRA leader Joe McCann in Belfast.

Faced with the likelihood of that type of evidence being ruled inadmissible again in any future trial, the PPS has concluded that there is no longer a reasonable prospect of convicting either Soldier F or Soldier B.

The families of the victims in both cases were informed of the PPS decisions in private meetings in a Derry hotel on Friday.

Director of public prosecutions Stephen Herron said: "I recognise these decisions bring further pain to victims and bereaved families who have relentlessly sought justice for almost 50 years and have faced many setbacks.

"It is clear to see how these devastating events in 1972, in which the families involved lost an innocent loved one, caused an enduring pain which continues to weigh heavily."

Solider F, an ex-paratrooper, was accused of murdering Mr Wray and Mr McKinney on Bloody Sunday on January 30 1972, when troops opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry's Bogside, killing 13 people.

He was also accused of the attempted murders of Patrick O'Donnell, Joseph Friel, Joe Mahon and Michael Quinn. He faced a further supporting charge of the attempted murder of a person or persons unknown on the day.

The case against him had reached the stage of a committal hearing at Derry Magistrates' Court, to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

The PPS has now requested a court date to formally withdraw the proceedings against Soldier F.

The family of Mr McKinney have vowed to challenge the PPS decision in the High Court in an effort to prevent the case being dropped.

After meeting with the PPS, Mickey McKinney, William's brother, said the campaign for justice would continue.

"This issue is far from concluded. We will fight on," he said.

The Wray family said they did not intend to take further legal action but would support other families pursuing that course.

n the case of Solider B, the PPS had announced in 2019 an intention to prosecute him for the murder of Daniel and the wounding with intent of his cousin Christopher Hegarty, then aged 16.

The shooting happened during Operation Motorman, an Army attempt to wrest control of no-go areas of Derry from the grip of the IRA.

Daniel and Christopher, who had gone to watch the military operation, were shot after encountering an Army patrol in the Creggan area in the early hours of July 31, 1972.

The PPS had not yet got to the stage of issuing summons to formally begin the prosecution of Soldier B - a delay caused by the veteran's unsuccessful High Court bid to challenge the move to bring charges against him.

The planned prosecution will now no longer proceed.

A lawyer for the Hegarty family urged the police to obtain a fresh statement from Soldier B, potentially by arresting him, to enable the prosecution to continue.

Solicitor Des Doherty said: "Unless the PPS, through their direction to police, now invite Soldier B to voluntarily attend with the police to be interviewed in relation to the murder of Daniel and the attempted murder of Christopher, then Soldier B should be arrested because there is still time to cure the problem."

Two distinct sources of evidence were deemed inadmissible by Mr Justice O'Hara in his highly significant April 30 ruling that led to the collapse of the Joe McCann murder trial.

The first were statements taken from the two accused soldiers by the Royal Military Police in 1972.

The judge ruled those unreliable because the soldiers were denied several basic legal rights and safeguards when giving their statements to the RMP, including a formal caution and access to legal representation.

The second evidential source found inadmissible was latter-day evidence emanating from the veterans' engagement in 2010 with a specialist police unit investigating legacy cases, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

Mr Justice O'Hara said it would be unfair to admit that as evidence due to ambiguity over the HET's purpose - to fact-find or to conduct criminal investigations - and the fact the accused were not informed what offence they were suspected of when cautioned.

The case against Soldier F over the Bloody Sunday murders hinged on the contents of statements taken by the RMP from two other soldiers involved in the events of Bloody Sunday.

Without those statements, the Crown would have been unable to prove that Soldier F was in the Bogside when the shots were fired.

In the Soldier B prosecution, an account of the shooting he gave to the HET in 2006 would have been crucial to the PPS case against him.

A total of seven legacy cases involving military personnel were looked at by the PPS in the wake of Mr Justice O'Hara's ruling.

In four of the cases a decision to prosecute had already been taken.

While the Bloody Sunday and Daniel Hegarty cases will no longer proceed following formal reviews, the prosecution of former soldier Dennis Hutchings for the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974 will continue.

So too will the case against David Jonathan Holden, who is accused of manslaughter by gross negligence in relation to the 1988 shooting of Aidan McAnespie at a checkpoint close to the Irish border.

Those cases are not affected by the same evidential issues

The three other cases involving former military personnel are still awaiting initial prosecution decisions and the O'Hara judgment will be factored into those ongoing processes.