28 March 2022

Soldier charged with Troubles killing acted with gross negligence, court told

28 March 2022

A soldier acted with gross negligence when he shot and killed a man at a cross-border checkpoint in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a court has been told.

David Jonathan Holden, 52, is on trial at Belfast Crown Court accused of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in February 1988. He denies the offence.

A prosecuting barrister told the non-jury trial, being presided over by Mr Justice O’Hara,  that Holden’s account that his finger had slipped and he had fired the shots by accident was “not credible”.

Mr McAnespie, 23, was killed in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, moments after walking through a border security checkpoint.

He was on his way to a local Gaelic Athletic Association club when he was shot in the back.

Members of his family attended the court hearing on Monday.

Holden is a former Grenadier Guardsman from England, whose address on court documents is given as c/o Chancery House, Victoria Street, Belfast.

Aidan McAnespie was shot close to a checkpoint in Co Tyrone in 1988 (PA) (PA Media)

Opening the trial, prosecuting barrister Ciaran Murphy QC said:  “On Sunday February 21 1988 Aidan McAnespie was killed by one of three bullets fired from a general purpose machine gun, also known as a GPMG.

“The gun was mounted in the army sangar situated at a permanent vehicle checkpoint in Aughnacloy, about 1km on the Northern Ireland side of the border.

“The defendant fired the gun resulting in the death of Mr McAnespie.”

Mr Murphy added: “The defendant discharged three bullets from the GPMG as Mr McAnespie was walking along the Monaghan Road.

“One of the bullets ricocheted off the road and it struck Mr McAnespie when he was approximately 300m from the sangar.

“The explanation given for the shooting by the defendant at the time was that his finger had slipped on to, and pulled, the trigger by accident.

“That explanation is not accepted by the prosecution.

“Although even if that version is accepted as fact, we say it was nevertheless a grossly negligent act and we submit that the court conclude that the defendant failed to give adequate regard as to whether the gun was in a non-firing state when he pulled the trigger.

“Given the level of duty of care upon the defendant as a soldier in possession of a deadly and lethal weapon in those circumstances, we say the killing of Mr McAnespie was an unlawful act.”

Supporters of former Grenadier Guardsman David Holden outside Laganside Courts in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

Mr Murphy told the trial that in the moments before the shooting, a colleague of Holden’s had told him that Mr McAnespie was making his way across the border.

He added: “That was the trigger for Mr Holden to direct his attention towards Mr McAnespie.

“During his interview with police the defendant accepted he took an interest in the deceased as he had previously been advised he may be a person of interest.

“A short time later there was a burst of fire from the machine gun while being controlled by the defendant.”

The barrister said Holden’s account that he had fired the weapon by accident because his hands were wet was unlikely.

He said: “Given the defendant’s account that he was holding the weapon with a loose grip and that he had squeezed the trigger, taken together with the admission from him that it had been some time since he had been cleaning the weapon, we say that account is not credible and the theoretical possibility of such a sequence occurring is unrealistic.

“The fact that two of the three shots fired landed within yards of Mr McAnespie, someone whom the defendant accepted he was interested in and concerned he was a member of the IRA, support the inference that the defendant was training his gun in the region of the deceased at the time he engaged the trigger.”

The trial was told that six days before the  shooting, Mr Holden, who was 18 at the time, had received a grading of “skilled” in the use of the weapon.

Later in the day a number of witness statements from people who had attended the scene after the fatal shooting were read to the court.

The case at Belfast Crown Court is proceeding amid the continuing controversy over Government plans to prohibit future Troubles-related prosecutions.

A small number of protesters gathered outside the court and unfurled banners calling for an end to Troubles prosecutions.

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer arrives at Laganside Courts in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

Conservative MP and former veterans minister Johnny Mercer, and Northern Ireland’s veterans’ commissioner Danny Kinahan, also attended the trial.

But members of Mr McAnespie’s family, supported by Amnesty, said that there should be not be an end to Troubles prosecutions.

Speaking outside court, Grainne Teggart from Amnesty said: “Today represents the due process that the UK Government is seeking to shut down for victims.

“Their plans to legislate for an effective amnesty would permanently deny justice to other victims.

“It is imperative that the UK Government heed the opposition to those proposals.”

Mr McAnespie’s cousin Brian Gormley said: “What we expect from a democracy is that the justice system delivers for people.

“We think that everyone should be entitled to that.”

Despite announcing its intent last summer, the Government is yet to table draft legislation in Parliament that would ban future prosecutions of military veterans and ex-paramilitaries for Troubles incidents predating April 1998.

The Holden case is one of a series of high-profile prosecutions of veterans that have been pursued in Northern Ireland in recent years.

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