Ex-soldier who shot dead civilian during Troubles convicted of manslaughter

<span>Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA</span>
Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

A former soldier who shot dead a civilian as he walked through a British army checkpoint in Northern Ireland during the Troubles has been convicted of manslaughter.

Belfast crown court on Friday found David Jonathan Holden, 53, guilty of gross negligence when he shot Aidan McAnespie on 21 February 1988, making the former Grenadier Guardsman the first army veteran to be convicted of a historical offence in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Holden admitted firing the shot from a machine-gun but said his finger slipped on the trigger when McAnespie, 23, passed the checkpoint in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. He was hit in the back by a ricochet and died at the scene.

Mr Justice O’Hara, sitting without a jury, ruled that Holden had pointed the gun at the victim and pulled the trigger while assuming the gun was not cocked. “That assumption should not have been made.” The judge told the court Holden had given a “deliberately false account” of what happened. Holden is to be sentenced at another hearing next year.

Members of McAnespie’s family hugged and cried after the verdict. Holden remained impassive.

Aidan McAnespie
Aidan McAnespie. Photograph: PA

The ruling angered veterans groups and comes as the UK government pushes ahead with controversial legislation that proposes an effective amnesty for those accused of killing or maiming people during the Troubles. Critics say it is an attempt to shield former soldiers from justice.

McAnespie had been on his way to a Gaelic football match across the Irish border when he was killed. The army considered him a “person of interest” – a potential IRA member – but he was unarmed. A manslaughter charge against Holden was dropped in 1990, prompting a long campaign by McAnespie’s family for a prosecution that culminated in Friday’s verdict, 34 years after the shooting.

The judge said Holden, who is from England and was 18 at the time, was criminally culpable for assuming his gun was not cocked. “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.”

The peril was apparent without hindsight, said the judge. “The defendant took an enormous risk for no reason in circumstances where he was under no pressure and in no danger.”

After the shooting Holden was fined for negligent discharge of his weapon and medically discharged from the army. In 2009 the British government apologised for the killing and expressed “deep regret” over McAnespie’s death.

Holden arriving at Laganside courts in Belfast
Holden arriving at Laganside courts in Belfast on Friday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Prosecutors revived the case against Holden in 2018 on the basis of a fresh ballistics report. Conservative MPs and army veterans groups called the prosecution vexatious.

Paul Young, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, said: “I’m saddened by it but it’s not over for David yet. As far as I’m aware, his team are going to appeal the decision and I think eventually, if necessary, go to the supreme court.”

McAnespie’s family said security forces had routinely harassed him before the shooting.

Speaking outside the court the victim’s brother Sean McAnespie welcomed the verdict. “I’m thinking of my father and mother who prayed and prayed for this day and they’re not here to see it,” he told reporters. “As a family we are very relieved and happy that we have such a big family, community and relations, to help us through this.”