A hero SAS sniper sensationally walked free from court today despite a judge criticising his public statements as “absolute nonsense”.
Sergeant Danny Nightingale, 38, was found guilty of hiding a firearm he brought back from Iraq and hoarding live ammunition from shooting ranges.
He had been given the Glock 9mm pistol by local soldiers during active service in the war-torn country in 2007.
But he secretly stored the handgun in a black pelican case in a wardrobe at his home on his return to the UK instead of having it decommissioned.
He also placed 338 live rounds of ammunition in a large plastic box under his bed, hoarded during his time as a range instructor.
Both items were knowingly stored in his room at the Sergeant’s mess, before Nightingale moved to Single Service Substitute accommodation in Hereford in 2011.
Yesterday, at Bulford Military Court in Wiltshire, Nightingale was handed two years behind bars, suspended for 12 months.
Judge Jeff Blackett said he had no option but to suspend the sentence because he was bound by an earlier decision by the Court Martial Appeal Court.
But the judge was highly critical of Sgt Nightingale’s public declarations of innocence and said the role of the British military had been misrepresented.
“Your public assertions that you are a scapegoat or a victim of some wider political agenda is absolute nonsense,” he said.
“You are simply someone against who there was a strong prima facie case of serious wrongdoing and, given the dangers to society caused by illegal firearms and their misuse, it was in the public interest to prosecute you.
“The Service Prosecuting Authority would have been neglecting its duty if it had not brought this prosecution.”
He proceeded to criticise the way the army had been portrayed throughout the case, calling it “uniformed and misinformed public debate”.
He told Sgt Nightingale that he understood the proceedings had been difficult but that the SAS soldier had “bought much of that anguish upon yourself”.
The SAS hero, who has two daughters Mara, five, and Alys, two, had pleaded guilty to possessing the prohibited firearm and 338 live rounds of ammunition in November last year.
He chose to plead after being warned by the judge that he could face five years in a civilian prison if he fought the charges and lost.
He was handed 18 months in a military detention centre, in Colchester, but only spent three weeks there before the sentence was reduced to 12 months and suspended by the Court of Appeal.
Judges then ruled that he had been unfairly pressured into pleading guilty and his conviction was quashed by the same court in March.
A retrial was ordered in June, but despite being found guilty of the charges by a military board at the end of the two week trial, the judge conceded that he was bound by the Court Martial Appeal Court decision that any sentence had to be suspended.
Yesterday Judge Blackett said his hands were tied by this earlier ruling.
“In our opinion we feel the seriousness of this case does merit an immediate custodial sentence but we feel constrained by the decision of their Lordships,” he said.
“In those circumstances we have decided that the sentences passed should both be suspended for a period of 12 months.”
He added: “Possession of a firearm is a very serious offence and it is aggravated when ammunition is with the firearm.
“You deal with weapons routinely both at home and abroad and you are required to be expert with them.
“While not an excuse the Court accepts that weapons are a normal part of your life and you would not have held them in the sort of awe which civilians would.
“It is this attitude, however, which must be guarded against because it leads to the sort of laxness you have demonstrated.
“The law applies to everyone, even those with impeccable character and a history of exceptional public service.
“A weapon is dangerous in the wrong hands whether it originates from someone with no criminal intent who is careless or from someone with baser motives.
“What you have done has endangered society and for that reason your offending is serious.”
Sgt Nightingale remained emotionless as the sentence was read out and his wife Sally starred at the floor throughout.
The court was told the Glock 9mm handgun was only discovered when police officers searched the house after they received a tip off from his housemate’s ex-wife.
Sgt Nightingale, of Crewe, Cheshire, worked as a member of Task Force Black, a covert British and American operation in Baghdad.
The court heard he was on active duty in Iraq in 2007 when he was given the gun from members of an indigenous force in Baghdad who knew he liked it.
Sgt Nightingale said he put the weapon into a large green box and intended to have it decommissioned to present to his unit as a leaving gift.
But he returned to the UK earlier than anticipated after he made up part of a repatriation party following the deaths of two friends, and his belongings were returned later.
The court also heard Nightingale accumulated the ammunition through his work as a range instructor and repeatedly failed to book back in all the ammo taken for the day.
Nightingale denied the charges of possessing a prohibited firearm and possessing ammunition – claiming to have no memory of either.
But Sgt Nightingale made “a series of full admissions to the offences” when he was interviewed by police in September 2011 and January 2012, the court was told.
He had also made a series of admissions to his housemate and close friend, Soldier N, who had also been storing a weapon.
Soldier N pleaded guilty to the offences and is currently serving time in a military prison.
Nightingale suffered memory difficulties after he collapsed while participating in a jungle marathon in the Amazon rainforest, in Brazil, in October 2009, the court heard.
He claimed that this memory loss resulted in him having no recollection of either the gun or the ammunition and believes they were planted by someone else.
He believes that any previous confession was a result of confabulation, or periodic memory loss, as he tried to fill in gaps left in his recall using things he had heard from fellow officers and the police.
Nightingale will be medically discharged from service next year after a panel found him no longer fit to serve as a result of the serious brain injury in 2009.