November 29 – In a ruling that prompted outrage among relatives of the victims, the police commander in charge of operations at Britain’s worst sporting disaster, the Hillsborough stadium tragedy, was acquitted Thursday of gross negligence manslaughter.
The eagerly anticipated verdict into the conduct of former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, 30 years after the crush that killed 96 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, stunned those who had campaigned for justice over three decades.
The now-retired Duckenfield was cleared after a seven-week retrial, the jury at his original trial earlier this year having failed to agree.
The new verdict means no-one will ever be held criminally responsible for the deaths and as the seven women and three men on the jury returned a not guilty verdict, there were gasps of shock in court, not least because the previous findings of the Hillsborough inquests had ruled the victims had been unlawfully killed.
Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James was among those who died, declared: “The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is who put 96 people in their graves, who is accountable?”
Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, called the verdict a “disgrace to this nation.”
“Who put 96 people in their graves?” she told reporters afterwards. “Who is accountable?”
Prosecutors alleged that Duckenfield, now 75, bore “personal responsibility” but his barrister had argued that his client had become “the focus of blame”.
“We say that is unfair, there are so many other people at fault, and so many causes,” he added.
The victims died in an overcrowded, fenced-in enclosure, with harrowing images of bodies lying all over the pitch. Police at first blamed the disaster on drunken fans, an explanation that was always dismissed by survivors and relatives. Inquests and an independent inquiry later absolved the fans of any responsibility.
Explaining the verdict, a spokesperson for Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service commented: “The disaster at Hillsborough 30 years ago has caused unimaginable suffering to the families of those who sadly lost their lives and to everybody affected by the tragic events of that day.”
“They were let down with the most catastrophic consequences imaginable. I know how important these proceedings have been to everyone, even though they came far too late. (But) It is important to remember that criminal proceedings have a very different purpose to an inquest.”
But that didn’t prevent a wave of anger.
“I’m shocked and stunned by the verdict of the jury,” said Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher died aged 18 in the disaster. “We, the families, have fought for 30 years valiantly,” he told the BBC.
Christine Burke, whose father was killed in the disaster, stood in the public gallery and addressed the judge after the verdict was read out.
“With all due respect, my lord, 96 people were found unlawfully killed to a criminal standard,” she said. “I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death because someone is.”
Liverpool FC said it shared “the reactions and frustrations by the families today and those affected by the Hillsborough tragedy”.
“The journey that reached today’s stage, and will continue, is testament to the perseverance and determination of all involved in the ongoing campaign for justice,” the club said.
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