The decision to prosecute Troubles army veteran Dennis Hutchings has been criticised by the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who said the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) have “serious questions” to answer.
Mr Hutchings passed away in Belfast on Monday, hours after his non-jury trial for attempting to murder John Pat Cunningham (27) in Benburb, Co Tyrone was paused.
The DUP leader demanded to know what “new and compelling evidence” emerged in the trial of the fatal shooting in 1974.
Mr Donaldson said he was “shocked” at the decision to charge Mr Hutchings for the killing and to bring the Troubles army veteran to trial given his ill health.
The 80-year-old’s trial had been adjourned for three weeks on Monday after the defendant contracted coronavirus.
Mr Cunningham was shot in the back as he ran from an Army patrol in a field.
Mr Hutchings, who denied all charges, had been suffering from kidney disease and the trial had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings. It’s understood he also suffered from heart failure and fluid on the lung.
It was reported that the great grandfather had been self-isolating in a Belfast hotel when he was rushed to the Mater Hospital. Reports suggested his doctors had advised him not to travel to Belfast for the trial.
Speaking to BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Mr Hutchings had been “literally dragged before the courts”.
“I do think this morning there are serious questions that need to be asked of those who took the decision that it was in the public interest to prosecute this man,” said Mr Donaldson.
“Bear in mind Dennis Hutchings stood trial before, or there was an investigation previously, so it is not a question of this being something new.
“The question I have for the PPS, what was the new and compelling evidence that meant it was in the public interest to bring an 80-year-old in ill health on dialysis at severe risk to his health before the courts?
“I think that is an entirely valid question I am entitled to ask this morning.
“I understand the plight of the Cunningham family, but my thoughts and prayers today are especially with Dennis' family who have been put through a terrible ordeal these last few years.”
The death of the army veteran comes amid the debate around how to deal with Troubles legacy cases.
In July, the British Government announced plans for a statute of limitations that would end all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998.
Military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries would be protected from prosecution under the measure.
The proposals would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the conflict.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the measures would allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”.
The plan has been heavily criticised by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Government and a range of victims and survivors’ groups.
The PPS has been contacted for a response.