AN SAS sniper today thanked the public after the Court of Appeal ruled that he had been unfairly convicted of illegally possessing a pistol and ammunition and ordered a new trial.
Sergeant Danny Nightingale, who argued that he had been put under “improper pressure” to enter guilty pleas at a military trial last year, said appeal judges had been right to quash convictions.
But his wife Sally said she was “saddened” that a re-trial had been ordered and disappointed their ordeal was not over.
The couple - both 38 and from Crewe, Cheshire - hugged following a day-long Court of Appeal hearing in London.
Sgt Nightingale said he would plead “not guilty” at the new trial and “attack” with “vigorous tenacity” the allegations against him.
He said he was “frustrated” not to be working but said the Ministry of Defence would decide whether he could return to duty pending the re-trial.
Appeal judges ruled the judge at Sgt Nightingale’s court martial in November had given an “uninvited sentence indication” and “improperly narrowed” the soldier’s “freedom of choice” to enter a plea.
They declared Sgt Nightingale’s guilty pleas “nullified” and said a fresh court martial should be held.
Sgt Nightingale had been sentenced to 18 months’ military detention in early November 2012 after admitting illegally possessing a Glock 9mm pistol and more than 300 rounds of ammunition.
The Court of Appeal concluded in late November that the sentence was too harsh. Three appeal judges cut the term to 12 months, said it should be suspended, and ordered Sgt Nightingale’s release. Appeal judges had delayed a hearing about the safety of convictions.
“Without help from family, from the legal team, we would not be where we are. More so from the press, the public,” said Sergeant Nightingale after the appeal hearing.
Sergeant Nightingale said he would enter not guilty pleas at the new court martial and went on: “We will attack it with the same vigorous tenacity as we have done this.”
He said his ordeal had been “terrible” and added: “I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”
William Clegg QC, for Sgt Nightingale, told the Court of Appeal today that the soldier had been put under “improper pressure” to plead guilty.
Mr Clegg said Sgt Nightingale had been told by a barrister representing him at the military trial that he would get a five-year jail term if found guilty but might not go to prison if he pleaded guilty.
He said the “improper pressure” had come when Ian Winter QC told Sgt Nightingale what the trial judge - Assistant Judge Advocate General Alastair McGrigor - “was saying”.
Mr Clegg said the “wrong” occurred when the Judge McGrigor “entered the arena.”
“What he (Sgt Nightingale) was told by Mr Winter was, ‘if you plead not guilty and are found guilty, you will get five years. If you plead guilty there is a very good chance you will not go to prison at all’,” Mr Clegg told the appeal court.
“What he (Mr Winter) was forced to say is ‘this is what the judge is saying is going to happen’. This is where the improper pressure came from.”
Judges had heard that the gun that led to Sgt Nightingale’s prosecution had been a gift from Iraqi special forces soldiers he had trained.
Sgt Nightingale planned to have the weapon decommissioned and kept as a trophy, judges heard.
But, lawyers said, he appeared to have put it in a cupboard in army accommodation in Hereford on a “very hectic day” when preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Judges were also told that Sgt Nightingale had suffered medical problems which had affected his memory.
The Service Prosecuting Authority said later that it acknowledged and respected the appeal court judgment.
A spokesman added: “There will now be a re-trial of this sensitive and important case.”