Two veterans accused of murdering the IRA member Joe McCann in 1972 have been acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
Their trial at Belfast Crown Court, which started last Monday, collapsed after the presiding judge decided not to allow statements made by the two former soldiers – identified only as Soldiers A and C – named as in 1972 as evidence.
Mr Justice O’Hara made the ruling on Friday over concerns about the circumstances in which the statements were made. The deficiencies included the fact that the then paratroopers were forced to give testimony to the Royal Military Police.
As the Public Prosecution Service’s case rested on this material, its decision not to challenge the judge’s decision brought the case to an end.
“In the circumstances Mr A and C I formally find you not guilty of the charge of murder,” Mr Justice O’Hara said.
The two men, now in their 70s, then left the courtroom.
Mr McCann, 24, was killed by paratroopers who shot him in the city in April 1972 while he was trying to evade arrest.
The family of Mr McCann are to apply to the Attorney General to open an inquest into his killing.
Speaking outside the court, solicitor for the family Niall Murphy said: “This ruling does not acquit the State of murder.
“This ruling does not mean that Joe McCann was not murdered by the British Army.
“He was shot in the back whilst unarmed, from a distance of 40 metres, posing no threat. It was easier to arrest him than to murder him.”
He added: “Today is not the end of the McCanns’ journey for justice.
“They will now apply to the current attorney general to open the inquest at which Soldiers A and C will be compelled to appear and give evidence and be cross examined.”
Mr McCann's daughter Aine said: "The judge was right when he used the word appalling to describe the failure of the State at all levels in relation to the murder of Joe McCann.
“The RUC failed, the criminal justice failed, not only in this case but in the case of many other families.”
When it opened last Monday, the veterans’ case became the first in several years to involve charges against former soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland.
There are four other similar charges currently going through the region’s courts. However, they all remain at the pre-trial stage.
In the McCann murder case, the prosecution had argued that the 1972 evidence should be admissible because the men had accepted the statements when questioned by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) about the crime in 2010.
However, Mr Justice O’Hara sided with the defence, saying it was unacceptable for the 1972 material to be “dressed up and freshened up with a new 2010 cover”.
He added that the prosecution would have been more sustainable if the Police Service of Northern Ireland had started a new investigation after the HET re-examined McCann’s murder eleven years ago.
Johnny Mercer, who resigned as defence minister last month over the exclusion of Northern Ireland veterans from the Overseas Operations Bill, welcomed the acquittal.
He said he was “delighted for the soldiers who can now hopefully go and live the rest of their lives in peace”.
Mr Mercer added: “But the Government has made very clear promises, and the prime minister has made very clear promises, on legislation to end the relentless pursuit of those who served their country in Northern Ireland.
“It is time to deliver on that.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for the soldiers demanded an “urgent independent review” of the PPS’s handling of the case.
Philip Barden, the senior partner at Devonshires solicitors who represented soldiers A and C, said the firm made legal submissions back in 2016 making clear that the evidence from their clients would not be admissible.
“The stress of these proceedings on the soldiers and their families cannot be underestimated,” he said.
“This is a prosecution that should never have got off the ground. Before initiating the prosecution, the PPS had all the relevant information to conclude that the evidence was clearly inadmissible. Despite this, the prosecution proceeded.”
He added: “I call for an inquiry by a senior judge to investigate the decision-making process and to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.”
Deputy director of public prosecutions at the PPS Michael Agnew said the decision to prosecute was taken after a “very thorough and careful examination”.
“Despite today’s outcome, the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the courts,” he said.
Mr Agnew added: “When the full written judgment becomes available, the PPS will carefully consider whether it has the potential to impact upon any other cases that are currently before the courts.”
Additional reporting by PA
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