WARRINGTON — April 26, 2016: Police failures were to blame for the deaths of 96 Liverpool soccer fans in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium crush, a jury concluded today after two years of hearings into Britain’s worst sporting disaster.
The verdicts of unlawful killing, which could pave the way for prosecutions, were greeted with a mix of cheers and tears by relatives of the victims, who sang the Liverpool fans’ anthem “You’ll never walk alone” outside the court here in northern England.
They had campaigned for almost three decades to get “Justice for the 96”, refusing to accept the deaths were accidental and accusing police of covering up exactly what happened.
“The story of Hillsborough is a story of human tragedy but it is also a story of deceit and lies, of institutional defensiveness defeating truth and justice,” said a statement from some of the bereaved families.
The fans, many of them young, died in an overcrowded, fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, northern England, at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on a warm, sunny afternoon in April 27 years ago.
Harrowing images of supporters crushed against metal fences, bodies lying on the pitch and spectators using wooden advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers horrified the nation.
The jury overseeing the inquests heard evidence from about 1,000 witnesses, making them the longest jury proceedings ever held in England. It ruled by a 7-2 majority that the fans had been unlawfully killed.
The coroner, John Goldring, had told jurors that to return such a verdict they would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge at the match, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence.
Duckenfield last year acknowledged at the inquests that his failure to close off a tunnel at the stadium had led directly to the deaths, and that he froze during the disaster.
The jury concluded police commanders had made mistakes in the build-up to the match and on the day itself, leading to fans being forced into central pens where they were crushed. It absolved Liverpool fans of any role in causing the disaster.
The state Crown Prosecution Service said it was considering whether criminal charges should be brought against individuals or any corporate body, and the independent police watchdog is also investigating.
The Hillsborough tragedy, which happened within minutes of kick-off, changed the face of English football. Banks of terracing and metal fences around pitches disappeared, replaced by modern, all-seated venues and better security.
It also led to a cover-up by police who attempted to deflect blame onto some Liverpool fans they portrayed as being aggressive, drunk, and ticketless, an independent panel set up to look into the disaster found in 2012.
“Landmark day as the Hillsborough inquest provides long overdue justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the tragic disaster,” Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter.
“I would like to pay tribute to the extraordinary courage of Hillsborough campaigners in their long search for the truth.”
Andy Burnham, the home affairs spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said: “This has been the greatest miscarriage of justice of our times.”
Burnham , who comes from Liverpool, said people must be held to account and there should be prosecutions.
“The Hillsborough Independent Panel gave us the truth. This inquest has delivered justice. Next must come accountability,” he said.
New inquests were ordered in December 2012 when London’s High Court quashed accidental death verdicts from 21 years earlier after the independent inquiry found new evidence and absolved the fans of any responsibility.
The damning report also found senior police commanders had edited their officers’ witness statements to paint them in a less damaging light.
The disaster is still an open wound in Liverpool, the port city of nearly half a million people that is passionate about soccer.
Many in Liverpool still boycott Rupert Murdoch’s top-selling Sun tabloid after it accused their fans of stealing from the dying, urinating on policemen and beating up an officer giving the kiss of life. The newspaper’s executives have since apologised for the story. — Reuters