LONDON (AP) — Two former British paratroopers accused of the 1972 murder of an Official IRA leader in Belfast were formally acquitted Tuesday after the veterans’ trial collapsed.
Joe McCann, 24, was allegedly evading arrest when he was shot dead by paratroopers in the Markets area of Belfast in April 1972.
The trial of the two veterans, now in their 70s and identified only as A and C, opened last week at Belfast Crown Court. It was the first in years that involved charges against former military personnel who served in Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict, known as the Troubles.
But a judge ruled that evidence implicating the former soldiers was not admissible and prosecutors said Tuesday they would not offer further evidence at the trial.
McCann’s family lawyer Niall Murphy said outside the court Tuesday that the ruling “does not acquit the state of murder” and that the family plans to apply to the Attorney General for an inquest into the killing.
“This ruling does not mean that Joe McCann was not murdered by the British Army,” he told reporters. “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.”
Joe McCann’s daughter, Aine, criticized the state for failing “at all levels” in her father’s case as well as for many other families.
McCann was wanted by the British Army and was involved in many shootings, including the 1972 attempted assassination of then-unionist official John Taylor.
Statements made by the defendants to the Royal Military Police in 1972 could not be accepted because of problems, including that the defendants were ordered to make them and they were not conducted under caution.
A second source of evidence — statements the two men gave to a police legacy unit in 2010 — was ruled not legitimate. The judge sided with defense lawyers on Friday, ruling that this evidence was just the 1972 evidence “dressed up and freshened up with a 2010 cover.”
Philip Barden, senior partner at the law firm representing soldiers A and C, said prosecutors should never have proceeded on the case. He said a senior judge should investigate the decision-making process “to ensure that the decision to prosecute these veterans was not political.”
Supporters of the veterans have said authorities should protect former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from prosecutions. Former Defense Minister Johnny Mercer has called for legislation to end the “relentless pursuit of those who served their country.”
Four other cases involving the prosecution of British veterans are ongoing.