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Veteran soldier avoids jail for 1988 Troubles killing

A former soldier has been given a suspended sentence for killing a man at an army checkpoint in Northern Ireland more than 30 years ago.

David Jonathan Holden, 53, was sentenced to three years by Belfast Crown Court but Judge Justice O’Hara stayed the sentence for three years.

Holden was found guilty last year by Belfast Crown Court of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in February 1988, the first veteran to be convicted of a historic offense since the peace accord in Northern Ireland.

Mr McAnespie, 23, was killed in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, shortly after passing through a border checkpoint.

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

The McAnespie family expressed disappointment at the verdict, but stressed they didn’t want “a pound of flesh”.

Holden had admitted firing the shot that killed Mr McAnespie but had said he accidentally fired the gun because his hands were wet.

But Judge O’Hara said last year he was “convinced beyond a doubt” that Holden was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence.

In court on Thursday, the judge highlighted five points about the case — Holden was 18 when the murder took place, he had been convicted of manslaughter and had no intent to kill, he grossly negligently assumed the gun wasn’t cocked, the fact that the gun was cocked and ready to fire was someone else’s fault and he couldn’t tell if the gun was cocked.

Judge O’Hara said, “In testifying at the trial, the defendant did not take the opportunity to express remorse. He could have done so, even in the context of contesting the case.

“That would have been helpful.”

The judge added: “The defendant gave the police and then the court a dishonest explanation, to a limited extent, which is an aggravating feature.”

The judge drew attention to statements by Mr McAnespie’s family about the victim’s impact on the court.

He said: “Aidan was the youngest of the six McAnespie children.

“The statements described the devastating impact the murders had on the entire extended family, how they changed their lives and how enormously challenging they were over decades.

Trials David Holden – Belfast
Aidan McAnespie was shot dead in 1988 (Family Handout/PA)

“I have no doubt that this was compounded by the sense of injustice in the family that Mr Holden was not brought to justice at the time.

“It’s something the family shares with far too many other families in our society who haven’t seen someone held accountable for all manner of murders, bombings and shootings.

“Included in the statements is a haunting description of Mrs. McAnespie, who walked every night from her home past the army checkpoint to the point where her son was tearfully killed while praying the rosary.”

He said: “When I think about the verdict, I think of everything put before me by the attorney and the McAnespie family.”

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

The case was tried in diplock format without a jury meeting.

Holden supporters gathered every day outside the courthouse where the trial was taking place.

Members of Mr McAnespie’s family were in court for the sentencing.

Trials David Holden – Belfast
Sean McAnespie (centre), brother of Aidan McAnespie, and Amnesty International’s Grainne Teggart (right) outside Belfast Crown Court (Liam McBurney/PA)

Aidan’s brother Sean McAnespie said: “The most important point is that David Holden has been convicted of the wrongful murder of our brother Aidan.

“We’re glad we had our day in court. David Holden could have given an honest account of what happened that day, but didn’t. It was clear to the judge that he had given a deliberately false version of events.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t miss Aidan.”

A representative of a veterans’ organization described Holden’s sentence as “extremely harsh”.

Trials David Holden – Belfast
Paul Young, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Veterans Movement, addresses the media outside Belfast Crown Court (Liam McBurney).

Paul Young, of the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Movement, which campaigns against the prosecution of soldiers who have served in the region, said: “We believe today’s verdict was extremely harsh considering how much time has passed and what David Holden had to go through in recent years.

“If you compare this to the Good Friday Agreement and the agreements made on terrorists that if they were convicted of a legacy they would never serve more than two years.

“Now we’ve convicted David Holden of manslaughter, so there’s clearly a difference between terrorists and the security forces who served in Northern Ireland.

“It’s a shame and should never have happened.”

The trial came amid ongoing controversy over government plans to come to terms with Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

The Troubles of Northern Ireland (Legacy and Reconciliation) bills will provide effective amnesty for those suspected of killings during the conflict if they agree to work with a new body known as the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recovery is.

The bill would also ban future civil trials and investigations related to Troubles’ crimes.

The Holden case is one of a series of high-profile prosecutions of veterans prosecuted in Northern Ireland in recent years.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International UK’s deputy director in Northern Ireland, said the conviction showed that accountability to the law “is still possible and must continue”.

She added: “It is important that the UK Government puts their trouble law on hold so that other families can get justice too.

“Justice delayed need not be justice denied, but many victims face it as the government continues its gross treachery by closing all avenues of justice.

“The government’s claim that the bill is about victim care is utterly disingenuous. The latest proposed amendments purport to address people’s concerns, but as the overwhelming opposition shows, no one believes them.

“It’s not too late to put victims at the center of legacy processes and demand their rights.”

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