Coroner rules Thomas Friel not struck by a rubber bullet and died as a result of fall.

A Coroner has ruled that a Derry man who died in May 1973 had not been struck by a rubber bullet and died as a result of a fall.

Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 4:22 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 4:31 pm
The late Thomas Friel

Coroner Joseph McCrisken was giving his judgement in the inquest into the death of Thomas Friel (21) from Creggan Heights in Derry who died on May 22, 1973 after being injured during rioting in the Creggan Heights area.

It had long been thought that the death was due to him being struck by a rubber bullet.

In giving his judgment the Coroner said that it was accepted that after 48 years recollections could be faulty and different people would remember the same incident in different ways.

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He said that after such a long period of time recall could be 'unreliable and inaccurate.'

Giving the context to the incident Judge McCrisken said that in 1973, 253 had died in the Troubles including 82 security forces.

He said on May 17 the day before this incident 5 British soldiers had been blown up in Crossmaglen.

He said, in general, the IRA had been engaged in 'savage violence and indiscriminate murder'.

On the day in question May 17, 1973, there had been considerable disorder in the Creggan area with vehicles hijacked and rubber bullets and CS gas fired.

The Coroner said that the deceased and his brother had been drinking in the Telstar Bar and left around midnight.

He said that three British army patrols were despatched to protect soldiers fixing fencing around the Piggery Ridge camp.

These patrols had come under attack from groups of youths in and around the Creggan Heights area, the inquest heard.

Assessing the evidence of the soldiers he said he believed their statements to the Royal Military Police were fairly accurate as they were given close to the time of the incident.

He described the soldiers as 'men trying their best to help the inquest'.

The Coroner described the incident in which rubber bullets were fired at around 1am on May 18, 1973 and said he believed this was the incident where Thomas Friel was injured.

He pointed out that civilians had said the injured man had been brought to the home of a first aid worker around 1 am and that the ambulance was called at 1.15am.

Judge McCrisken said a subsequent RUC investigation had not suggested any lines of investigation and had not resolved the question as to the time of the incident.

Basing his conclusions on the evidence of four pathologists the Coroner said that there had been an abrasion on the right side of Thomas Friel's head which one pathologist had thought was caused by a rubber bullet which in turn had caused a 'distortion fracture' on the left side.

However, in rejecting this evidence the Coroner said the other pathologists felt that the injuries were caused by 'an accelerated fall' causing the deceased to strike his head on the ground.

He ruled that Thomas Friel had sustained three separate injuries including a blow to his head caused likely by a missile which led to him falling and striking his head on the ground.

The Coroner said he was 'probably unconscious' by the time he fell and struck his head.

The situation at the time was described as 'chaotic and fast paced' and Judge McCrisken said no one could properly explain how Thomas Friel came to be injured as 'no one knew how he had been injured.'

He said Seamus Friel, Thomas Friel's brother, had genuinely thought his brother had been struck by a rubber bullet.

He ruled that Thomas Friel had died of 'a catastrophic injury to the skull and brain.'

The Coroner said that the verdict may not be what the Friel family who said they wanted justice for their brother, had been expecting but 'sometimes justice means answers.'