An SAS sniper jailed for illegally possessing a pistol and ammunition last night thanked the “great British public” after winning an appeal and walking free.
Father-of-two Sgt Danny Nightingale, 37, who lives near Crewe, said he had been “humbled” by public reaction to his plight.
He had been sentenced to 18 months’ military detention earlier this month by a judge sitting in a military court after admitting illegally possessing a Glock 9mm pistol and more than 300 rounds of ammunition.
But three appeal judges concluded that the sentence was too harsh, after a hearing at the Court Martial Appeal Court in London.
They cut the term to 12 months, said it should be suspended, and ordered Sgt Nightingale’s release.
Judges heard that more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for Sgt Nightingale to be freed after his wife Sally, 38, and other family members launched a campaign.
And Sgt Nightingale said the level of public support had been “humbling” as he hugged Mrs Nightingale after being released.
“Thank you to the great British public,” he said. “They have been absolutely wonderful in their support.
“It has just been extremely humbling. Very, very humbling.”
Mrs Nightingale said: “It can only be good for all the troops out there fighting for our country to see justice has been done.”
Judges heard that the gun had been a gift from Iraqi special forces soldiers Sgt Nightingale had trained.
They were told that Sgt Nightingale planned to have the weapon decommissioned and keep it as a trophy.
And they heard that Sgt Nightingale, who has suffered medical problems affecting his memory, appeared to have put the gun in a cupboard in his army accommodation in Hereford on a “very hectic day” when preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Sgt Nightingale, whose accommodation was not on the SAS base at Hereford, said he had not “appreciated” that he had the weapon.
Lawyers representing Sgt Nightingale accepted that he had admitted “serious offences” which crossed the “custody threshold”.
But they asked three appeal judges – the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Mr Justice Fulford and Mr Justice Bean – to “temper justice with mercy”.
A former SAS commander gave Sgt Williams a character reference – and told judges that the sniper had put his life at risk on many occasions and “stood out” amongst special forces colleagues.
Lord Judge – the most senior judge in England and Wales – said the appeal panel had concluded that the case involved an exceptional person and exceptional circumstances and that the sentence could be reduced.
“These were serious offences. They crossed the custody threshold,” William Clegg QC, for Sgt Nightingale, told judges.
“Having said that, if ever there was a case where this court should show mercy, this is it.”
He said Sgt Nightingale’s “housekeeping” had been “very bad” but added that the case was “truly exceptional”.
Lt Col Williams, who said he was no longer in the Army, added: “One is dealing with a man who has literally put his life at risk on many occasions to help in actions against the enemy.”
And he told judges: “He is an exceptionally good soldier. One who stands out amongst his SAS colleagues.”
Lord Judge said Sgt Nightingale had served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He added: “These offences were committed in exceptional circumstances by an exceptional soldier.”
Judges said they would rule later on whether Sgt Nightingale’s convictions should be overturned.
Mr Clegg had told the court that Sgt Nightingale said he pleaded guilty thinking that any sentence might be suspended.
Lawyers representing prosecutors argued that the convictions were “not unsafe” and should not be overturned.