A British soldier fired his gun three times at an innocent, unarmed man who was killed as he ran away from an army patrol in Northern Ireland in 1974, a court has heard.

Dennis Hutchings, now 75, appeared in court in Armagh accused of the attempted murder of John-Pat Cunningham, 27.

Mr Cunningham, who had learning difficulties, was shot dead by an Army patrol in June 1974, close to Benburb, a village on the border between counties Armagh and Tyrone.

Mr Hutchings, of New Road in Cawsand, Torpoint, Cornwall, is also facing a charge of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm to Mr Cunningham.

A prosecution lawyer told a preliminary inquiry at Armagh Magistrates' Court that Mr Hutchings chased Mr Cunningham across a field and fired his weapon three times.

He said it was possible that it was Mr Hutchings who shot Mr Cunningham, but added it was "equally possible" the fatal shots were fired by a second man, referred to as Soldier B.

The court heard that Mr Cunningham was shot at least twice, with one bullet hitting him in the back as he fled.

"This was an innocent, unarmed man shot and killed by soldiers. He was shot through his back at a range of 90 metres," the prosecutor said.

"Clearly the defendant followed (Mr Cunningham) into the field. John-Pat Cunningham was running away.

"John-Pat Cunningham did not pose any threat that required him to be shot and killed. There was no legitimate reason for the defendant to fire his weapon.

"The evidence presents the picture of an unexplained, repeated firing at an innocent, vulnerable man running away from the soldiers."

A defence lawyer said Mr Hutchings acted lawfully at all times and Mr Cunningham had posed a threat. He said the army patrol thought Mr Cunningham was in possession of a concealed weapon.

"Mr Hutchings was on lawful duty that day charged with keeping the peace,” the lawyer said:

"We know that Mr Cunningham was acting suspiciously. We know that Mr Cunningham failed to obey a lawful order to stop.

"All we know is that the patrol stopped a man who was acting suspiciously. They thought he had a concealed weapon. He failed to follow orders to halt. He was shot."

A retired member of the Royal Military Police told the court he seized Mr Hutchings' self-loading rifle after the shooting because the defendant told him it had been used.

Alan Mews told the court he had received a radio call from the operational unit and asked to attend the scene. He said he entered a field with a local priest.

"I walked 200 yards then I saw the body of John-Pat Cunningham. I had a conversation with the priest then returned to the vehicle.

"I spoke to the soldiers involved and took possession of a self-loading rifle along with a magazine from Colour Sergeant Hutchings."

The judge is to decide on tomorrow if Mr Hutchings will be returned for Crown Court trial.

Earlier, the court was told that Mr Hutchings is suffering ill health.

Requesting breaks throughout proceedings, a defence lawyer said: "He is not a well man. He has kidney failure. In a matter of months he will be on dialysis. He will be in hospital for five hours every day."

Mr Hutchings was charged after a fresh investigation in 2013, launched after a request from the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland.