Video report by ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers
Two former paratroopers accused of murdering IRA leader Joe McCann during the Northern Ireland Troubles have been acquitted after their trial collapsed at Belfast Crown Court on Tuesday.
The veterans’ trial collapsed after the Public Prosecution Service confirmed it would not appeal against a decision by Mr Justice O’Hara to exclude statements given by the ex-soldiers about the shooting of Joe McCann in 1972.After the prosecution confirmed it would be presenting no further evidence in the case, the judge told the defendants: “In the circumstances, Mr A and C I formally find you not guilty of the charge of murder.”
Moments later, the two accused, dressed in suits and ties, walked from the court.
In a short statement following the verdict, 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 trial opened last Monday and heard a full day of evidence.
It then moved into a separate hearing to determine whether statements and interviews given by the ex-soldiers, who are now in their 70s, would be admissible as evidence.
The first was statements they made to the Royal Military Police in 1972, the second source was statements and interview answers they gave to a police legacy unit, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), in 2010.
On Friday, Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that the soldiers’ evidence could not be admitted.
The reason was due to problems with how the statements were taken, including the fact the soldiers were ordered to make them, they were not conducted under caution and there was no access to legal representation.The two statements were the only piece of evidence the prosecution had and without them the trial could not proceed.
Mr McCann, 24, was shot dead by paratroopers as he attempted to evade arrest by a plain clothed police officer in the Markets Area of Belfast in April 1972.
ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers says the outcome of this trial could be a "watershed" for upcoming trials of former members of the military who served in Northern Ireland
The family of Joe McCann have said they will 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.”
It was the first trial in several years that involved charges against former military personnel who served in the Northern Ireland conflict.
Four other cases involving the prosecution of veterans are at the pre-trial stage in the region’s courts.
Former defence minister Johnny Mercer has called on the government to introduce legislation to end prosecutions of veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after the verdict, he said: “I’m delighted for the soldiers who can now hopefully go and live the rest of their lives in peace.
“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.”
The collapse of the veterans' trial has given hope to former soldiers like Dennis Hutchings.
Mr Hutchings is dying from kidney failure but is still facing trial for the 1974 death of Pat Cunningham, who was shot as he ran away from an army patrol.
He said: "It's crazy. I mean, how can people, witnesses and everything else remember the detail of what happened 50 years ago - especially when as a soldier and you're on a patrol and you're in a hostile area, which it all was, and you have seconds to make decisions."
Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has defended its decision to attempt to prosecute the two former soldiers.
Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said the decision was taken in 2016 after the evidence received was subjected to a “very thorough and careful examination by a team of experienced lawyers”.
“Despite today’s outcome, the PPS remains satisfied that this case was properly brought before the courts. The case overcame a number of legal challenges before reaching trial,” he said.