The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has taken decisions not to prosecute five former soldiers reported in connection with the death of John James Bell in County Tyrone over 40 years ago.
Mr Bell, aged 24, suffered fatal injuries when he was shot during a military operation on the grounds of a hotel in Cookstown on 14th August 1980. His brother, Michael Bell, escaped from the scene uninjured. The military operation involved covert surveillance of the area on consecutive nights in response to information that paramilitaries were intending to plant blast incendiary devices at the hotel.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reported five suspects (referred to as Soldiers B, C, D, E and F) to the PPS after a re-investigation of the case by its Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB). This fresh investigation involved a review of all existing material and also obtained new expert evidence in relation to ballistics. It also involved the suspects being interviewed after caution for the first time.
The totality of the available evidence has been carefully considered by a team of senior prosecutors who were assisted by independent senior counsel. It was concluded that, in respect of all five suspects, the available evidence did not provide a reasonable prospect of conviction for any offence.
PPS Assistant Director, Martin Hardy, said the prosecution team met with the family of James Bell to explain in detail the reasons for the decisions taken.
“We have applied the Test for Prosecution objectively and impartially to the available evidence. This was a difficult case which raised a number of challenging evidential and legal issues and in which the prospects of conviction had diminished due to the passage of time coupled with the inadequacies of the original investigation in 1980.
“The key issue in the case was whether the prosecution would be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the soldiers did not act in self-defence. Our assessment was that the available evidence was not capable of establishing that the soldiers did not genuinely believe that there was a risk to their lives, or that of their colleagues, when they opened fire; or that their firing was a disproportionate use of force in the circumstances as they may have genuinely believed them to be.
“It is clear that in this tragic case there was no objective justification for the shots fired, as James Bell and his brother Michael were not terrorists and the evidence indicates that they did not in fact pose a threat to the soldiers. However, there was a body of evidence that tended to support the proposition that the soldiers mistakenly believed that the brothers were terrorists who were planting firebombs, and believed at least one of them was armed and posed a lethal threat.
“Furthermore, there were a number of important evidential weaknesses in the case which included the fact that the soldiers were not investigated as suspects at the time and also that Michael Bell, a key witness, had died in 1994 and was therefore not available to give oral evidence as to what had occurred.
“The family of James Bell have waited many years to reach this stage of the process after what was a tragic and distressing loss. I know this outcome is hugely disappointing to them. I have reassured them that these decisions were taken after a most thorough and careful consideration of the file received from police. I have also sought to provide them with detailed information about what is known about the circumstances of James’ death, as well as the reasons for the decisions that we have taken.”
The five soldiers were each considered for the offences of the murder of James Bell, as well as the attempted murder of his brother Michael who escaped the incident without any gunshot wounds.
Consideration was also given to an offence of the gross negligence manslaughter of James Bell in relation to the delay in finding his body and providing urgent medical assistance.
However, the available evidence indicated that the reason for the delay was the perceived danger of trying to search the area in darkness in circumstances where a helicopter could not be deployed to assist (due to inclement weather conditions) and it was believed that any individual hiding may have been armed.
Furthermore, the available evidence was incapable of establishing that any of the reported soldiers were responsible for the decision to delay the search, or that immediate medical assistance would have prevented Mr Bell’s death.
NOTES TO EDITORS:
1. All decisions by the PPS are taken strictly in accordance with the Test for Prosecution which involves two stages. The Test for Prosecution is met if, in relation to an identifiable suspect, the available evidence is sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of a conviction (the Evidential Test) and if prosecution is in the public interest (the Public Interest Test). The Evidential Test must be passed first before the Public Interest Test is considered. Further information can be found in the PPS Code for Prosecutors.
2. The death of John James Bell was investigated by the PSNI after being subject to a 35 (5) request from the Director of Public Prosecutions after the case was referred to the PPS by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. A re-investigation of the case was undertaken by the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB).
3. The file reporting five suspects was received in December 2019.
4. Media queries for the PPS should be referred to the Communications Unit by emailing email@example.com inside office hours. The out of hours press officer can be contacted on 07920 271 804 or 07795 480234.