The ex-paratrooper, identified as "Soldier F," will face prosecution for the killings of James Wray and William McKinney and the attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O'Donnell on Jan. 30, 1972, in Londonderry, the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland said Thursday.
Prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to charge 16 other former soldiers and two alleged members of the Official Irish Republican Army who were investigated for their roles in the shootings, which killed 13 people and injured 15 others.
The charges announced Thursday come more than two years after police referred their findings to prosecutors and almost nine years after the conclusion of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which was tasked with determining what happened, not bringing criminal charges.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry found that the British soldiers had opened fire without justification at unarmed, fleeing civilians and then lied about it for decades. Those findings refuted an initial investigation that took place soon after the slayings, which branded the demonstrators as IRA bombers and gunmen.
"I wish to clearly state that where a decision has been reached not to prosecute, that this in no way diminishes any finding by the Bloody Sunday Inquiry that those killed or injured were not posing a threat to any of the soldiers," Stephen Herron, the director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland, said as he announced the charges. "We recognize the deep disappointment felt by many of those we met with today."
Bloody Sunday has come to symbolize "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the long-running conflict between mainly Roman Catholic supporters of a united Ireland and predominantly Protestant forces that want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Tensions have eased since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which created a system for Republican and Unionist parties to share power in Northern Ireland.
Family members have spent years campaigning for justice for the Bloody Sunday victims, while many supporters of the British military argued that the soldiers shouldn't be prosecuted for making split-second decisions decades after the event.
Dozens of relatives carrying black-and-white images of the slain demonstrators walked quietly Thursday to Londonderry's Guildhall. After the announcement, they were unable to hide their disappointment with the decision.
John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was killed, said many families had suffered "terrible disappointment." Nonetheless, he said the relatives were happy for the families of the six victims who will now see a soldier prosecuted.
"Their victory is our victory," Kelly said. "We have walked a long journey since our fathers and brothers were brutally slaughtered on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday. Over that passage of time, all the parents of the deceased have died. We are here to take their place."
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry took 12 years and cost almost 200 million pounds ($265 million). The victims' families, as well as the British, Irish and U.S. governments, saw the findings as a step toward healing one of the biggest wounds left by the four-decade conflict in Northern Ireland that left 3,700 people dead.
The inquiry was authorized by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 ahead of the negotiations that led to the Good Friday peace accord. English judge Mark Saville, who conducted the investigation, gave the ex-paratroopers broad protections from criminal charges and anonymity, citing the risk that they could be targeted with retaliation by IRA dissidents.
One of Saville's more damming conclusions was that Wray was shot twice — once as he ran away, and once as he was on the ground. Prosecutors said much of the material considered by the Saville inquiry wasn't admissible in criminal proceedings "due to strict rules of evidence."
Britain's Ministry of Defense said it would help defend the ex-soldier who will now face prosecution, while working to reform the system for investigating allegations of past misdeeds by the military. Veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have also faced prosecution in the U.K. years after the alleged events.
"We are indebted to those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland," Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement. "The welfare of our former service personnel is of the utmost importance, and we will offer full legal and pastoral support to the individual affected by today's decision. This includes funding all his legal costs and providing welfare support."