A former British soldier has been found guilty of the manslaughter of a Catholic man shot dead in Northern Ireland in 1988 during the Troubles.
David Holden becomes the first veteran to be convicted of a historical offense since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict.
Aidan McAnespie was killed in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone, 34 years ago after walking through a border security checkpoint.
The 23-year-old had been on his way to a Gaelic football match when he was shot in the back.
Holden, who was 18 at the time serving with the Grenadier Guards, had admitted firing the shot which killed Mr McAnespie, but had said he had discharged the weapon by accident because his hands were wet.
The 53-year-old had denied the charge of gross negligent manslaughter during his non-jury trial at Belfast Crown Court.
But trial judge Mr Justice O’Hara said he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty.
He found Holden had pointed a machine gun at Mr. McAnespie and pulled the trigger, while assuming the gun was not cocked.
He told Belfast Crown Court: “That assumption should not have been made.”
He also said the former soldier had given a “deliberately false account” of what happened.
The judge said: “The question for me is this – just how culpable is the defendant in the circumstances of this case?
“In my judgment he is beyond any reasonable doubt criminally culpable.”
Mr Justice O’Hara told Belfast Crown Court: “It is suggested on his behalf that it was not exceptionally bad or reprehensible for him to assume that the weapon was not cocked. I fundamentally disagree.
“In my judgment this was the ultimate ‘take no chances’ situation because the risk of disaster was so great.
“The defendant should have appreciated at the moment he pulled the trigger that if the gun was cocked deadly consequences might follow.
“That is not something which is only apparent with hindsight.
“The defendant took an enormous risk for no reason in circumstances where he was under no pressure and in no danger.
“In light of the foregoing I find the defendant guilty of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie by gross negligence.”
During the trial, Holden confirmed he had previously checked Mr. McAnespie’s car registration and identified him as a “person of interest” to the security forces – a fact underlined by the prosecution.
In his closing submission, Crown counsel Ciaran Murphy QC said: “The one person he was aware of and in whom he had an interest was Aidan McAnespie.
“Of all the areas he could have struck with a ricochet or otherwise, he managed to strike the very target of his surveillance.”
Responding to the verdict, Darragh Mackin, the lawyer for Mr McAnespie’s family, said: “Since 1988 the family have persevered in trying to seek justice against the British army and Mr Holden for the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie.
“Mr Justice O’Hara found Holden’s evidence ‘entirely unconvincing’, ‘incoherent’, and described his account as a ‘deliberately false account’.
“We welcome this decision which gives all victims’ families here hope that the courts remain open to families seeking justice.”
But speaking outside court, Paul Young, national spokesman for the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, said: “Veterans will be deeply disappointed by this verdict, I’m saddened by it, but it’s not over for David yet because his team, as far as I’m aware, they are going to appeal the decision, and I think eventually, if necessary, go to the Supreme Court.
“I understand that the family are going to feel completely different to us veterans, and they will have their time to say what they say.
“But for us the witch hunt continues, that’s why we support this legacy Bill that is going through Parliament right now which will stop any further prosecutions of veterans that have been previously investigated.
“The terrorists have effectively got an amnesty … with letters of comfort, royal pardons.”
To date, six former soldiers have been charged with historical offenses Northern Ireland but cases against four collapsed and one died while on trial.
Last year, the UK government introduced a bill to address the legacy of the Troubles and effectively end the historical prosecution of former British soldiers.
Under the legislation, those who cooperate with investigations led by a new truth recovery body would be granted immunity from prosecution.
But the legislation, offering a conditional amnesty to both former soldiers and former terrorists has been fiercely opposed by all victims.
On Wednesday, the government confirmed it will bring forward amendments, including a “more robust process” around immunity from prosecution.