A Northern Ireland veteran has become the first former soldier to be convicted of a killing during the Troubles since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
David Holden, 53, a former Grenadier guardsman, had been on trial at Belfast Crown Court accused of the manslaughter of Aidan McAnespie in February 1988.
His sentence, which will be passed in January next year, could result in jail time, and has led to anger over the Government’s failure to pass an amnesty law that would protect Northern Ireland veterans.
If its Legacy Bill is passed, Holden’s conviction may be the last prosecution of its kind. One government source accused Brandon Lewis, the former Northern Ireland secretary, of failing to work harder to see the Bill made into legislation.
“They’ve basically bullied Holden on the stand and made the evidence fit the judge’s narrative,” they told The Telegraph. “This bill should be in law right now to protect someone like David.”
Mr McAnespie, 23, was on his way to a local Gaelic Athletic Association club in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, when he was shot in the back, moments after walking through a border security checkpoint.
Holden, who is originally from England, admitted firing the shot that killed Mr McAnespie, but claimed he had fired the weapon by accident because his hands were wet.
However, Mr Justice O'Hara, who heard Holden’s case in a Diplock format without a jury, said he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Holden was guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence and said the soldier should have appreciated from the moment he pulled the trigger the consequences of his actions.
He 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 judgement 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.”
Mr O'Hara added that 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,” he said.
Mr O'Hara also accused the former soldier of giving a "deliberately false account" of what happened that day and said that in his personal judgement “he is beyond any reasonable doubt criminally culpable”.
Supporters for Holden had gathered outside the court each day of the trial, amid continuing controversy over government plans to deal with Northern Ireland's troubled past.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill proposals provide an effective amnesty for those suspected of killings during the conflict, if they agree to cooperate with a new body, known as the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (Icrir).
The Bill would also prohibit future civil cases and inquests related to Troubles crimes. The Holden case is one of a series of high-profile prosecutions of veterans that have been pursued in Northern Ireland in recent years.
Speaking from the court on Friday, Grainne Teggart, deputy director for Northern Ireland at Amnesty International UK, urged the Government to see the verdict as a “death knell” for its “wholly discredited Troubles Bill”.
“This verdict is a direct counter to the Government’s entire justification for this legislation and proves that justice delayed needn’t be justice denied,” she said.
“If the Government pushes ahead with the Troubles Bill, it will not only be a cruel betrayal of the families who have waited so long but would send a very dangerous message to regimes around the world who may want to replicate legislation which sets their armed forces above the law.”
An MoD spokesman said: “We acknowledge the verdict in the trial of David Holden and will continue to provide legal and pastoral support during any appeal and the pre-sentencing process.”