THE FAMILY of Aidan McAnespie, who was shot and fatally wounded by a British soldier in 1988, recently issued the following statement through the Pat Finucane Centre:
Speaking earlier in October, Una Mc Anespie, niece of the victim, said:
"Within the last week we have had a further meeting with the Historical Enquiries Team as a follow-up to the interim report which we received earlier this year. That interim report described the officially accepted version of the incident, that the weapon discharge that led to the death of Aidan had been accidental and random, as the "… least likely" explanation.
As agreed we have now been provided with a full resolution report which is the result of the focussed investigation. This report, in our view, is a devastating rebuttal of the British Army version of events and represents the closest that we as a family have got to the truth of what occurred that day."
The HET considered three scenarios:
- Guardsman Holden accidentally discharged the gun in the manner described by him in his statements or in some other unknown and undisclosed circumstances.
- Guardsman Holden deliberately discharged a burst of aimed shots at the victim or his vicinity.
- Guardsman Holden was tracking the victim with the gun, or was aiming the gun at him, and being unaware that the gun was cocked and ready to fire, inadvertently discharging the three shots.
In respect of the 'accidental discharge' theory, the first scenario, the report concluded:
"When the facts that the victim of this alleged random shot was a subject that the soldiers kept under observation, and was perceived by them as a potential terrorist suspect, are added to the equation, then the likelihood that it was a random shot is even less. Add to this the minimum 9lb pressure required to pull the trigger and the probability of 'accidental firing' recedes further." (see unedited HET Conclusions below)
The HET report continued:"Having weighed up these propositions and taken all the circumstances into account, none of the three scenarios outlined above can be definitively ruled out; Guardsman Holden's version of events, however, can be considered to be the least likely."
In respect of the fatal shot the HET concluded:"…the chances of it being or random seem so remote in the circumstances that they can be virtually disregarded."Responding to the HET report, Una Mc Anespie said:"As a family we feel that a huge burden has been lifted as a result of these latest findings. The claim that Aidan was killed by a ricochet bullet fired at random because a soldier had wet slippy fingers which inadvertently came in contact with the trigger and that Aidan was not being tracked at that precise moment has been firmly rebutted. The official scenario, as accepted by the British Army and the prosecution service, can be regarded as so 'remote' that it can be 'virtually disregarded'.
This investigation examined the circumstances in the context of the harassment that Aidan suffered and Guardsman Holden's perception of Aidan as the 'enemy'. The official explanation of the events of Sunday February 21 1988 have been deconstructed in their entirety. My mother, Elish, fought for 20 years to have the truth told. It was a great comfort to her to receive the interim report before she died earlier this summer. These latest findings are a lasting tribute to her efforts and a vindication of our beloved son, brother and uncle Aidan.
On Sunday 21 February 1988, Aidan McAnespie was shot and fatally wounded by a soldier firing a general purpose machine gun (GPMG) from the permanent British army checkpoint at Aughnacloy Co. Tyrone. A Grenadier Guardsman, David Holden, was charged with manslaughter but the Director of Public Prosecutions later withdrew this charge.
Holden claimed that he was moving the GPMG when his wet fingers, which were allegedly wet from cleaning the sanger, slipped onto the trigger, which resulted in the discharge of three shots. One of the shots struck Aidan in the back, fatally wounding him. According to the ballistic and forensic evidence, the fatal shot was a ricochet. Guardsman Holden denied that he aimed at Aidan or was tracking him and claimed that the incident was a tragic accident.
Aidan McAnespie was routinely stopped and harassed by the British army as he passed through the Aughnacloy check point on his way to work or going to the GAA club located past the checkpoint. As with many nationalists at the time Aidan was considered by the British army to be an IRA suspect, therefore, his movements were observed and recorded by the soldiers at the check point. He had made numerous complaints to the RUC about the harassment and had raised this in the media. In the minutes before the shooting there is incontrovertible evidence that he was being tracked as he walked through the checkpoint.
Guardsman Holden claimed that he moved the weapon by holding the pistol grip with a "loose grip." As he did, his finger slipped and he inadvertently pulled the trigger. The HET test fired a GPMG and found that:"Activating the trigger required having a firm grip on the pistol grip and squeezing the trigger until it activated. It was found to be difficult and required considerable force to activate the trigger without having the hand firmly gripped around the pistol grip."
Therefore, Holden's loose grip explanation contradicted the results of the practical test on the weapon.
Furthermore, the HET discovered that the gun was mounted on to a pivot, which allowed the weapon to be swivelled. Therefore there was no necessity for Holden to have his hand on the pistol grip and finger on the trigger guard since he only had to swivel the butt of the weapon on the pivot in order to reposition the weapon. In addition another soldier confirmed that he had already repositioned the weapon.
Holden claimed that his hands were still wet from cleaning the Sanger 10 minutes earlier. HET investigators have analysed the activities in the sangar that day which showed that the cleaning was conducted by a cleaning party and that Holden had resumed look- out duty a half hour before the shooting. The 'wet hands' scenario is difficult to reconcile with the timing of the cleaning duties.
Lance Sergeant Peters gave evidence that on entering the sangar after the shooting and asking Holden what had happened the reply was that he had squeezed the trigger.
Holden was not interviewed by the RUC until more than 24 hours after the incident. In the intervening period he remained in military custody. There was a further 24 hour delay before the second interview took place. The crime scene was not forensically examined until the next day and the scene was not secured in the interim. This would result in "crime scene evidence recovered being questionable" according to the HET.
Forensic & Ballistics
The gun had been dismantled and cleaned earlier that day. It has not been established why or by whom the gun was left cocked and with the safety catch off. This was totally in contravention of standing orders. The forensic evidence concluded that a ricochet bullet, which struck the ground just directly behind Aidan before it entered his body, inflicted the fatal injury.
The weapon discharged three rounds and the fatal bullet was a tracer round. There is now no way of knowing whether the fatal bullet was the first or the last of three shots fired. Swab tests taken from the roadway no longer exist.
If the first shot fired resulted in the ricochet from the fatal strike mark then this could support the assertion that the gun was aimed at the victim or in his vicinity. However, the HET has since discovered that the forensic report gave no consideration to the possibility that the fatal ricochet was a result of the first shot discharged from the weapon. The forensic scientist did not test the stike marks on the road to ascertain which were the result of racer bullets-a test which would have been evidentially important.
It should be noted that there is clear evidence that the Guardsman had Aidan, whom he considered to be a suspect, under close observation as he passed through the checkpoint. However at the moment of discharge Holden claimed to have been physically repositioning the weapon. In otherwords he claims not to have been aiming at or tracking Aidan when the shots were fired.
The HET report noted:"An impartial and independent observer must question the likelihood of an accidental random discharge striking the roadway only a few feet behind what would be from the vantage point of the machine gun post a miniscule figure at a distance of 283.4 meters. The statistical odds, as outlined by Independent Ballistic expert Keith Borer, are strongly against the accidental discharge theory."
For further information about this and other similar cases taken up by the Pat Finucane Centre visit: www.patfinucanecentre.org
HET conclusions in full
This review into the death of Aidan Martin McAnespie has been examined against the below factors:
- The original case investigation
- Exhibits records
- Ballistic evidence
- Family concerns
- Intelligence records
- Analysis of available evidence
The HET concludes that, on the basis of the available evidence:
Aidan McAnespie died as a result of being struck by a high velocity bullet, which ricocheted from the roadway a short distance behind him and was fired by Guardsman David Holden from a General Purpose Machine Gun located in an upper sangar nearly 300 metres away.
Guardsman Holden has already been interviewed, arrested and charged with manslaughter, although the charge was withdrawn by the DPP at the time, and this review has found no legal grounds or new evidence to justify re-interviewing him or for submitting a file of evidence for reconsideration by the PPS.
The HET has considered the accounts given by the witnesses, in particular the soldiers involved. There are three possible scenarios:
- Guardsman Holden accidentally discharged the gun in the manner described by him in his statements or in some other unknown and undisclosed circumstances.
- Guardsman Holden deliberately discharged a burst of aimed shots at the victim or in his vicinity.
- Guardsman Holden was tracking the victim with the gun, or was aiming the gun at him, and being unaware that the gun was cocked and ready to fire, pulled the trigger, inadvertentlydischarging the three shots.
There is little doubt that, as a young British soldier in control of a lethal weapon, with a person he considered an IRA suspect in his sights, Guardsman Holden would have felt some antipathy towards the victim; the evidence does not definitively rule out an accidental discharge, but nor does it preclude the possibility that Guardsman Holden deliberately fired the gun at the victim.
It was also suggested in the interview with Guardsman Holden, and is a possibility, that he had been tracking the victim with the gun, or had the gun aimed at him, and had pulled the trigger, unaware that it had been left cocked, resulting in the discharge. The issue of the remains of a dust cap, still in place when the weapon was fired, may support this contention. He denied this account, however.
The accidental discharge version is based on the statement of Guardsman Holden, supported to some degree by the findings of Forensic Scientist and Ballistic expert, Gary Montgomery. The evidence of a ricochet was also used to support this version.
This formed the rationale for the subsequent decisions made by the SIO and his senior officers to recommend no prosecution and possibly then the decision by the DPP not to prosecute.
The opinion of Mr Montgomery, an experienced Forensic Scientist and ballistic expert, undoubtedly warrants serious consideration; however, the HET must assess it on the basis of it being an opinion and, like any opinion, open to debate and challenge.
From a critical (and the family, perspective) it could be argued that his findings were too readily accepted by the police and not subject to any other expert scrutiny until Keith Borer's submissions in 1990.
He bases his opinion on his expectation that the three bullets fired would have struck in the same area if the weapon had been deliberately discharged from a firm firing position. Yet whilst one of the bullets struck below and to the left of the victim, the other two bullets struck, more or less, in the same area.
Given it is unknown, and likely to remain unknown, exactly under what conditions or circumstances Guardsman Holden fired the weapon, except for his version of events, then Mr Montgomery's conclusions are arguable and, to some degree, based on assumptions made from the circumstances explained to him; for example, he does not appear to have been invited to consider whether a 'surprise firing' resulting from the soldier 'tracking' Aidan with the weapon, unaware that it was cocked, might account for the spread of strike marks.
If the nearest/lowest strike mark (KD 1) resulted from the first shot fired from the gun, it would to some degree support the contention that the gun was not aimed at the victim.
However, if the first shot fired, resulted in the ricochet from the fatal strike mark (KD 2) then this could support the assertion that the gun was aimed at the victim or in his vicinity.
In Mr Montgomery's report, the possibility that the fatal ricochet was as a result of the first shot discharged from the weapon is not examined.
The evidence of the fatal shot being a ricochet is also used to support the accidental discharge version, which is perceived by the family as ruling out the other options; yet an aimed shot, directed close by the target, could also have resulted in an unplanned ricochet with catastrophic consequences. This does not seem to have been considered.
The fact that the bullet struck the roadway only a metre or so behind the victim at a distance of 283.4 metres from the firing point, does not add any great weight to the view that the shooting was accidental and conversely could indicate that the gun was deliberately aimed towards him.
An impartial and objective observer must question the likelihood of an accidental, random discharge striking the roadway only a few feet behind, what would be from the vantage point of the machine gun post, a miniscule figure at a distance of 283.4 metres. The statistical odds, as outlined by Independent Ballistic expert Keith Borer, are strongly against the accidental discharge account.
When the facts that the victim of this alleged random shot was a subject that the soldiers had kept under observation, and was perceived by them as a potential terrorist suspect, are added to the equation, then the likelihood that it was a random shot is even less. Add to this the minimum 9lb pressure required to pull the trigger and the probability of 'accidental firing' recedes further.
Having weighed up these propositions and taken all the circumstances into account, none of the three scenarios outlined can be definitively ruled out; Guardsman Holden's version of events, however, can be considered to be the least likely.
The HET cannot judge, on the available evidence, whether the shot was fired deliberately or unintentionally. The fact that the dust cover was in place, and the possibility that the weapon may well have been left cocked without the knowledge of Guardsman Holden, may support the view that the actual discharge was unintentional. However, the chances of it being un-aimed or random seem to be so remote in the circumstances that they can be virtually disregarded.
This leaves the option of a deliberate shot, or the option that Guardsman Holden was 'tracking' Aidan with his weapon aimed, and was unaware that the weapon was cocked when the trigger was pulled.
The family believe that it was a deliberate shot, either to kill Aidan or aimed nearby to scare him.
In the final analysis, the HET is of the view that, whatever the truth of the matter in this case, it is unlikely that the GPMG was discharged in the circumstances, or in the manner, described by Guardsman Holden.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2008 Connolly Publications Ltd