Army officers who accidentally shot dead Whitefield soldier in training exercise launch appeals to save their careers

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson

First published in News
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Two army officers who were locked up for negligence after a young soldier from Bury was accidentally shot dead on a training exercise have launched court bids to save their careers.

Newly-wed fusilier, James Wilkinson, 21, of Whitefield, was tragically killed by machine gun fire during a mock battle in training with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Kenya.

Last summer, Corporal Colin Bell, 30, and Staff Sergeant Patrick Price, 43, were given sentences of 14 months and 21 months, respectively, at a court martial for negligently performing a duty.

The two cases were back in front of senior judges in London today after they launched appeals against their detention sentences, arguing that the punishment, which would also end their careers, was too tough.

Price, who was a supervisor on the exercise, also appealed his conviction, arguing that the guilty verdict is "unsafe", before Lord Justice Pitchford, Mr Justice Wilkie and Mrs Justice Patterson.

But after hearing a morning of argument at the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Pitchford left the two soldiers guessing when he decided to reserve his judgment on their appeals until an unspecified later date.

The court heard Private Wilkinson, recently married and soon to become a father, died after he was shot in the neck during the training exercise in November 2011.

The machine gun was malfunctioning and, attempting to rectify it, Corporal Bell took the weapon from another soldier.

He began removing the barrel, but the butt of the gun slipped from his thigh and it went off, causing Pte Wilkinson's fatal injuries.

Bell's barrister, Mark Ashley, today argued that the 14-month sentence and the order throwing him out of the Army was "manifestly excessive".

He was not guilty of laziness or foolhardiness, but of a momentary lapse of judgment, with devastating consequences.

Bell had had a distinguished career in the Army, but his life was now on the brink of ruin as he will lose his job, home and pension.

Two officers from his regiment, including the sergeant major, had travelled from Cyprus to support his appeal, hoping he could remain with them, Mr Ashley said.

"When one looks at the context of what happened, his service record, the decorations he has, the service in Afghanistan, it's not inevitable and necessary to dismiss him from the Army," he continued.

For Price, Benjamin Squirrel said his fault had been a misjudgment when prioritising where the dangers lay during the exercise.

He had also had a good career, but had himself expressed unease at his suitability for the Kenya exercise. Previously, he had worked in an admin role, the barrister said.

"This court must carefully consider the issue of dismissal and whether or not it made the sentence too crushing," he continued.

"This is a case where a sentence of this level was too high and also the dismissal was too crushing in the impact it will have on him if it subsists."

The judges reserved their decision on the two sentence appeals and on Price's bid to overturn his conviction.

Bell has admitted his fault from the very beginning, the court heard.

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