Justice at last for 96 in 27-year fight for Hillsborough truth

Families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster declared that justice had finally been done as an inquest jury ruled the victims had been unlawfully killed in a tragedy caused by police blunders.

Lawyers acting for the families said the conclusions, at the end of the longest jury case in British legal history, had completely vindicated their tireless 27-year battle for the truth.

The deaths were ruled accidental at the end of the original 1991 inquest.

But those verdicts were quashed following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report, which concluded that a major cover-up had taken place in an effort by police and others to avoid the blame for what happened.

The new jury concluded that blunders by the police and ambulance service on the day had “caused or contributed” to the disaster and that the victims had been unlawfully killed.

The jury forewoman wiped away tears and had a catch in her voice as she confirmed the answers to 14 questions about the disaster to coroner Sir John Goldring.

Leading Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster, said afterwards: “Let’s be honest about this — people were against us. We had the media against us, as well as the establishment.

“Everything was against us. The only people that weren’t against us was our own city. That’s why I am so grateful to my city and so proud of my city. They always believed in us.”

Surrounded by a sea of camera crews and reporters outside the court, she added: “I think we have changed a part of history now — I think that’s the legacy the 96 have left.”

The jurors were told they could only reach the unlawful killing determination if they were sure of four “essential” matters concerning the deaths at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

They had to be convinced match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died, and that he was in breach of that duty of care.

Thirdly, they would need to be satisfied that his breach of duty caused the deaths and, fourthly, that it amounted to “gross negligence”. They concluded it was unlawful killing by a 7-2 majority.

The jury also ruled that fan behaviour did not cause or contribute to the tragedy.

The Hillsborough disaster unfolded during Liverpool’s cup tie against Nottingham Forest on April 15 as thousands of fans were crushed at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.

Duckenfield gave the order at 2.52pm to open exit Gate C in Leppings Lane, allowing around 2,000 fans to flood into the already packed central pens behind the goal.

The jury found that: both the police and the ambulance service caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster by an error or omission after the terrace crush had begun to develop; also, policing of the match caused or contributed to a dangerous situation developing at the Leppings Lane turnstiles; commanding officers caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace, as did those senior officers in the police control box when the order was given to open the exit gates at Leppings Lane; features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium considered to be dangerous or defective caused or contributed to the disaster; Sheffield Wednesday’s then consultant engineers, Eastwood & Partners, should have done more to detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of the stadium.

On the question of the role of South Yorkshire Police in the emergency response, the jury said: “The police delayed calling a major incident so the appropriate emergency response was delayed.

“There was a lack of co-ordination, command, and control which delayed or prevented appropriate responses.”

On the role of former South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (Symas), the jury said: “Symas officers at the scene failed to ascertain the nature of the problem at Leppings Lane. The failure to recognise and call a major incident led to delays in the responses to the emergency.”

Criminal investigations into the disaster and claims of corruption in its aftermath could finish by the end of the year, when prosecutors will decide whether to charge any individual or organisation.

The officer leading the police inquiry, Assistant Commissioner Jon Stoddart, said: “Now that the inquests have concluded, my sole focus is on completing the criminal investigation which I expect will be finished by the turn of the year.

“It will then be for the Crown Prosecution Service to consider the evidence and decide whether any individual or organisation should face criminal prosecution.”

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, the official police watchdog, also expects its investigation to finish by January.

The jury of six women and three men gave their decisions on an emotionally charged day for relatives of the 96, many of whom were in court.

The fresh inquests began on March 31, 2014 in a specially-built courtroom in Warrington, Cheshire.

After the key conclusions were delivered on Tuesday, someone in court shouted “God bless the jury”.

As families left the building they were met with applause from crowds who had gathered outside the court in support.

Many began singing Liverpool’s anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

All ages and walks of life lost their lives

Fathers and sons, mothers, sisters, and brothers were all among the 96 who had their lives crushed in the Hillsborough tragedy.

The youngest was 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the cousin of future England and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

The oldest was ex-RAF war veteran and father-of-seven Gerard Baron, 67.

Each fan had a tribute paid to them by their loved ones at the start of the inquests; stories of fans who got tickets at the last minute, mothers who waved off excited young sons never to see them again, two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son. The raw pain still felt by the families was deeply moving for everyone who heard it.

Despite the passage of time, relatives were still bereft, confused, and angry.

Seventy eight of the 96 were aged under 30; 89 were men and seven were women. The children of one victim, Inger Shah, 38, were taken into care after her death.

Craig Fitzsimmons told of his father Vincent, who died aged 34. As he spoke about still missing “my Dad” it was as if this now middle-aged man with a family of his own had been transported back to a boy who waved his father off and was still wondering why dad had not come home from the match.

Adam Spearritt, 14, died after losing consciousness in the arms of his father, Eddie.

Mr Spearritt also passed out — waking the next day to be told the son he tried desperately to save was dead. He never forgave himself.

Doting dad Thomas Howard, 39, died with son, Tommy Jr, 14. David Lackey, another Liverpool supporter, recalled the father repeatedly saying: “My son, my son”. Neither made it out of pen three alive.

Steven Brown’s wife Sarah was six months pregnant at the time. Steven, 25, had desperately wanted to be a father, but never got to hold his daughter, Samantha.

A number of the fans killed had travelled north to Sheffield on the day, Liverpudlians who had, “got on their bikes and looked for work” to use the language of the 80s.

Several worked on the ships as seamen or in shipping, but there were also schoolboys, students, apprentices, engineers, an accountant, salesmen, joiners and builders.

Far from layabout Scouse hooligans, if the fans who died are in any way representative of the supporters, it is difficult to see them as anything other than a random cross-section of ordinary members of the public.

Sarah Hicks, 19, who turned down a place at Oxford to study chemistry at Liverpool University, died alongside her sister, Vicki, 15, in pen three.

Her father, Trevor, was involved in desperate efforts on the pitch to save the girls.

He said: “The loss of a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a loving parent. Loss of all your children is devastating.

“It is not that two is twice as bad. It’s that you lose everything. The present, the future, and any purpose.”

Police officer in charge at risk of prosecution

Pat Hurst

Former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield is at risk of prosecution, for the second time, for his conduct at Hillsborough.

The 71-year-old has been interviewed under caution by detectives from Operation Resolve, the police investigation into the disaster.

After decades of denial, Duckenfield told the inquest that he had been on a personal journey of depression and whisky-drinking (his own “Road to Damascus”) to face up to the truth.

A career high-flyer, disciplinarian, and worshipful master of his masonic lodge, Duckenfield faithfully followed the “company line” at the 1989 Taylor Inquiry, denying police responsibility.

A private prosecution in 2000, on charges of manslaughter and wilful malfeasance, brought by the Hillsborough Family Support Group, ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict and a retrial refused.

But during evidence at these inquests, Duckenfield, “now very much older, very much wiser,” for the first time admitted he was the wrong man for the job.

Amid a catalogue of admissions and repeated apologies, delivered in a gravelly Yorkshire accent, he had come finally to “tell the whole truth”.

That it took him 26 years to do so infuriated the families, some of whom stormed out of court in disgust.

He had steadily risen up the police ranks: he was made an inspector in 1974, chief inspector in 1977, superintendent in 1983, and chief superintendent on March 27, 1989, three weeks before the disaster. He had just 15 working days to familiarise himself with his new role, a “serious mistake”, he admitted later.

As police lost control at the turnstiles, the man at the top “froze”, overcome by the enormity of the situation. Within minutes, he had told a “terrible lie” that fans “got in through gates” or “stormed” them — not that he ordered them opened.

The lie, blaming the fans, was on the airways and halfway around the world moments later; the truth would take 27 years to catch up.

Duckenfield had gone into denial at the enormity of his blunders.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

Breaking Stories

Six injured as vehicle crashes into pedestrians in Newcastle

Cholera epidemic in Yemen 'worst in the world' says WHO

LATEST: Death toll from Pakistan oil tanker fire rises to 148

Nine bodies recovered after landslide buries scores in China

Lifestyle

Move over, David Gandy — there’s a new crew of Irish men making their mark on the catwalk

The benefit of sport is more than just winning

Dublin Cookie Co is cooking up a business

Ask Audrey: I tried tantric sex with my yoga instructor once and we managed 47 minutes before the bus arrived at Parnell Place

More From The Irish Examiner