The Ministry of Defence failed to pass on to soldiers serving in Northern Ireland information it had about the lethality of plastic baton rounds ricocheting off the ground before a child was shot in 1975, a coroner has found.
Coroner Paddy McGurgan also said that 10-year-old Stephen Geddis posed no threat when he was shot by a baton round while near a civilian barricade erected during unrest in the Albert Street/Cullingtree Road area of west Belfast on August 29, 1975.
He found that the youth had been shot by a soldier, referred to as SGM15, but that he did not believe the soldier fired the round with the aim of causing serious injury or death.
The legacy inquest, the second into Stephen’s death, is one of a number ordered by former Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin.
An original inquest held in January 1976 returned a verdict of misadventure.
Delivering his inquest findings, Mr McGurgan said: “From all of the evidence I am satisfied that immediately prior to the discharge of the baton round Stephen Geddis was in the courtyard (at the Divis complex) with some of his friends and posed no threat to the soldiers.
“I am satisfied SGM15 discharged a baton round from a position on the other side of the curved wall from a range of about 50 metres of where Stephen Geddis was standing.
“On balance I favour the view that the baton round was discharged into the ground and that it bounced prior to striking Stephen Geddis.
“Though I am critical of SGM15 in deciding to discharge the baton round, I tend to the view that it is more likely that SGM15 discharged the baton round in accordance with the rules of engagement at the time which only permitted a direct strike of a target in very limited circumstances.
“I find that SGM15 probably failed to appreciate fully the lethality of employing such a technique because the Ministry of Defence had failed to tell its soldiers of information that it had as to the lethality of employing such a technique.
“The failure to instruct soldiers properly on this issue prior to August 1975 is a matter about which the Ministry of Defence, in my opinion, bears significant responsibility in the context of Stephen Geddis’s death.
“A proper instruction to the soldiers would have led to a very significant reduction in the risk of civilians, particularly young children such as Stephen Geddis, being struck with fatal consequences by a ricocheting baton round.
“It follows I am not satisfied that SGM15 discharged the weapon with the intention of causing death of serious injury to anyone.
“I do not consider that SGM15 deliberately aimed at Stephen Geddis or that he singled him out before firing.”
Some of Stephen Geddis’s brothers were in court in Belfast for the proceedings while his mother watched via videolink.
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