A Londonderry man previously believed to have died from head injuries caused by a rubber bullet was likely to have been injured by other means, a coroner has found.
Thomas Friel, 21, died in hospital in May 1973 four days after being injured during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry.
A fresh inquest has found he was likely struck by masonry during an altercation between youths and soldiers which caused him to fall and sustain a further injury.
Coroner Joe McCrisken concluded at Londonderry court house following a “long and difficult exercise”, hampered by the issue of memories of the incident almost 50 years ago, that he was not satisfied Mr Friel had been struck by a rubber baton round.
In lengthy findings, Mr McCrisken was also critical of the original police investigation over its assessment of the timing of the injury.
“I am satisfied to the required standard considering the opinions of all of the pathologists and applying my own, not inconsiderable experience as a death investigator, that Thomas Friel sustained three separate injuries to his head,” he said.
“The first was a blow to the left side of the forehead, I consider it most likely that this injury was caused by Mr Friel having been struck by a missile of some sort during a disturbance involving a crowd of youths and the army.
“The first injury, to the left side of the forehead, was caused by, in my view on balance, a missile, a piece of masonry, something of that nature during the disturbance.
“I am satisfied that Thomas Friel was highly intoxicated when he arrived at Creggan Heights… I am satisfied that while in Creggan Heights he was with the crowd who were involved in stoning the army patrol.
“It is more likely than not that this injury to the front of his head caused him to fall to the ground… I am satisfied it was of sufficient force to cause Thomas Friel to fall to the ground, possibly unconscious, but he fell, struck the left side of his head and face… this accelerated fall on to probably the road surface caused the left sided fracture of his skull… bleeding and brain damage, to the left and right side.
Coroner has found that Thomas FRIEL died in May 1973 not as a result of a rubber bullet strike but because of several injuries to head during rioting. Criticised RUC investigation. Family to consider findings. More detail later.
— Pat Finucane Centre (@FinucaneCentre) December 1, 2021
“There was a third injury to the top of the skull, perhaps caused by a fall or perhaps caused by a missile.”
Mr McCrisken said the scene was likely to have been “fast paced, frenzied and chaotic”.
He added: “At least two, and probably more than two, rubber batons were discharged striking at least two people.
“I am not persuaded based upon the evidence that I have heard that Thomas Friel was struck with a rubber baton round. It is of course possible that he may have been, but I do not consider this as the most likely scenario based on the evidence which I have heard.”
He said it did seem to have been considered by police that Mr Friel had been present and injured at an earlier altercation, describing a “glaring inconsistency in timings”, with a rubber bullet having been fired at 1.20am, after an ambulance had been called for Mr Friel at 1.15am.
“No further investigative leads were suggested to resolve this issue, the RUC did not, it seems, have access to the military logs and sought no access,” he said, adding he relied on “crucial evidence” from four forensic pathologists.
The coroner described a local background of “savage violence” as “essential to understand what happened”, and recalled a very different background to now, with 253 people losing their lives in 1973 in the Troubles.
“The passage of such a period of time is bound to have affected the recollections of those who witnessed and participated in the events of the tragic night of 17-18 May 1973 … it is not possible to overestimate the difficulty in relying on sworn testimony and a search for the truth at a remove of 48 years from the event to which it relates,” he said.
He described being left with the impression that former soldiers who gave evidence had poor recall but were “trying their best to help the inquest but genuinely and understandably found it difficult to remember these events”.
One of Mr Friel’s surviving brothers was present as the findings were read by Mr McCrisken.
The coroner recognised the “resolve and determination” of the Friel family, waiting almost 50 years for a fresh inquest into Mr Friel’s death, with his sister Margaret having died before the hearings started.
“I hope that these findings provide some measure of closure. Justice of course can mean different things to different people, but in terms of these so-called legacy inquests, it should, in my opinion, mean answers,” he said.
He added: “Thomas Friel was clearly a man much loved by his family … Liam Friel, his younger brother, told me at inquest that Thomas would have helped anyone. Clearly his loss was felt very deeply by the family and that remains the case, and the disputed circumstances of his death has only added to that grief.
“Liam Friel told me at inquest that the family wanted justice for Thomas after all these years. Liam told me that he believes Thomas was struck by a rubber baton round and that this caused his death. My findings are therefore not what Liam was expecting.
“I believe that justice in the context of an inquest administered fairly means answers to certain questions concerning the death of a person.
“Each issue considered during this inquest was forensically examined in a degree of detail that was simply not possible 48 years ago.
“Thousands of pages of evidence were considered and oral evidence taken from 16 witnesses with evidence read from many others, experts in ballistics, forensic pathology were examined for many hours and I consider that the family have been treated justly, fairly and reasonably.
“They in turn have shown great patience and have themselves behaved in a fair and respectful manner. I urge them to consider these findings and trust that when they do they will consider that justice has indeed been done and answers have been provided explaining finally the circumstances around the death of Thomas Friel.”
A lawyer for Mr Friel’s family, who long campaigned for a fresh inquest, said they are “shocked and disappointed” by the findings.
Ruairi Muldoon told the BBC: “The family has always been convinced that he died as a result of a blow to the head by a rubber bullet fired at short range.”