The split second on a dark night that determines whether Clegg murdered

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The Independent Online
THE Lee Clegg case began as an incident involving soldiers on a dark night in west Belfast, developed into protracted legal proceedings, and has in the process come to be regarded as a touchstone of British justice.

By this stage the legal issues have been so overlaid with political considerations that middle England and nationalist Ireland will never agree on what constitutes justice in the case.

Most Britons seem to regard the episode as the unjustified conviction of a squaddie making a split-second decision while doing an unenviable but necessary job. Most nationalists see it as an example of extreme partiality towards the military by a political and legal system which purports to treat civilians and soldiers as equal.

The facts are not in accord with the picture given by either side. They include a clear instance of military deception and an illustration of just how unlucky Private Clegg was to be convicted.

The original trial involved six soldiers. The judge in the non-jury case heard that in September 1990 the private was one of 16 paratroopers accompanying an RUC officer in west Belfast on a patrol aimed at combating the joyriding which was common in the district.

The soldiers divided into teams, some setting up a checkpoint but discontinuing it after a stolen car drove through without stopping. As they walked along a dark road another car appeared, and it was fired on.

The soldiers said they fired because it was placing the lives of colleagues in danger. All specifically testified that it had struck one of their number on the leg. Many shots were fired, one killing the driver, a 17- year-old youth, while two others fatally injured a backseat passenger, 18-year-old Karen Reilly.

The RUC officer originally corroborated the soldiers' story, but later went to his superiors and made a lengthy statement saying that no one in the patrol was in any danger from the car, and that no one had been struck by it.

He also testified that the soldiers, fearing that the shooting would not be seen as justified, had chosen one of their number and stamped on his leg to simulate an injury. Campaigns to free Private Clegg have glossed over these military lies.

Private Clegg testified that he had fired four shots after seeing a colleague being knocked off-balance by the car. He said he fired three times at the windscreen as it came towards him, then once at its wing as it passed. He said he had not fired at the rear of the car.

That point was crucial, in that the court ruled that shots fired at the front of the car, or at its side, were legal. The judge said that any shot fired at its rear, when it had passed and posed no threat, could not be justified.

The original trial accepted forensic evidence that one of the shots which hit Karen Reilly had been fired by Private Clegg, and had passed through the rear of the vehicle. His fate turned on the question of a micro-second: if he fired at the side of the car he was innocent, if he fired at the rear it was murder.

Private Clegg was also unlucky in the statistical sense. Troops have killed around 300 people in Northern Ireland, many civilians. But although more than 30 members of the security forces have been prosecuted for their part in killings, few have been convicted. Thus, nationalist complainants say bitterly, the surprise in the case was not that it has been reopened but that the soldier was convicted in the first place.

In bars in England the view is that an unfair conviction is on the way to being rectified; in Irish pubs the accusation is that the system is once again more concerned with protecting army personnel than with justice. The gap in perceptions is huge and, in this case, almost certainly unbridgeable.