A former soldier who shot a civilian as he walked through a British Army checkpoint Northern Ireland during the Troubles has been convicted of manslaughter in a Belfast court.
David Jonathan Holden, 53, who was serving with the Grenadier Guards when he shot Aidan McAnespie on February 21, 1988, admitted he had fired the shot but said his finger slipped on the trigger.
Manslaughter charges against Holden were dropped two years later, leading to a long and ultimately successful campaign by McAnespie’s family for a new prosecution it culminated in Friday’s verdict, 34 years later.
The 23-year-old Catholic was on his way home from a Gaelic football match across the Irish border when he passed the checkpoint in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. He was hit in the back by one of three shots fired from a machine gun that ricocheted off the road, according to forensic evidence. He died on the spot.
Holden is the first military veteran to be convicted of a historic offense in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The ruling came as the British 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’s an attempt to shield military veterans from justice.
The shooting of McAnespie has been a high-profile case, with Conservative MPs and other supporters of Holden, who was 18 at the time of the shooting, calling the prosecution outrageous.
McAnespie’s family said security forces had harassed him repeatedly before the shooting and then closed ranks to protect Holden. Holden said his hands were wet and his finger slipped on the trigger. He was fined for negligently discharging his weapon and medically discharged from the army.
In 2008, a report by the Historical Investigation Team – an agency tasked with investigating unsolved crimes during the Troubles – said the soldier’s account of events was the “least likely version” of what happened. In 2009, the British government issued an apology and expressed “deep regret” over McAnespie’s death.
Speaking before the verdict, Margo McAnespie said her brother’s life had been taken away. “We have always believed that the fundamental right of access to the justice system should be available to us and that the full events surrounding Aidan’s death should be presented in an open court to allow for truth and justice. Our determination to ensure this has has been our motivation over the years.”
She added: “Unfortunately, the years of getting to this point have meant that our sister Eilish, our mother, Lizzie, and more recently our father, John, are no longer with us and that will make Friday even harder for us as a family . We will be thinking of Aidan and all of them on Friday morning, but take comfort in knowing that they will be with us in spirit.”