David Duckenfield has been cleared of gross negligence manslaughter following the deaths of 95 Liverpool fans at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.
The Hillsborough match commander was found not guilty by a jury of seven women and three men, after deliberating for 13 hours and 43 minutes, at Preston Crown Court following a trial which lasted more than six weeks.
The prosecution in the case alleged Duckenfield, 75, had a ‘personal responsibility’ for what happened at the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15 1989, where 96 men, women and children, were fatally injured in a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace.
Charged with 95 deaths
Under the law at the time he was not charged over the death of the 96th victim Tony Bland, because he died more than a year and a day after the disaster.
Duckenfield stood trial earlier this year but the jury was discharged after failing to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered.
The court heard the chief superintendent ordered the opening of exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the ground at 2.52pm, eight minutes before kick-off, after the area outside the turnstiles became dangerously overcrowded.
More than 2,000 fans entered through exit gate C once it was opened and many headed for the tunnel ahead of them, which led to the central pens where the crush happened.
Duckenfield did not give evidence in the trial as the court heard he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Judge Sir Peter Openshaw also told jurors the condition could explain Duckenfield’s lack of reaction as he sat in the well of the court throughout the trial.
He said: “He has a resilient, passive and expressionless external presentation which gives no indication of his state of mind so don’t draw an adverse inference against him.”
The court was played audio of the retired chief superintendent giving evidence to inquests in 2015.
At the hearings he accepted he should have taken steps to close the tunnel to the central pens after ordering the opening of the exit gate.
Duckenfield ‘a target of blame’
Benjamin Myers QC, defending Duckenfield, told the jury he had been a “target of blame” for the disaster.
He told the court: “We say David Duckenfield did do what he was expected to do as match commander. He didn’t breach his duty, he did what he was expected to do in difficult circumstances.”
Summing up the case, the judge said: “The deaths of 96 spectators, many of whom were very young, is, of course, a profound human tragedy attended by much anguish and anger which for many has not passed with time.
“But, as both counsel have advised you and I will now direct you, as you go about your duty you must put aside your emotions and sympathies, either for the bereaved families or indeed for Mr Duckenfield, and decide the case with a cold, calm and dispassionate review of the evidence that you have heard in court.”
Former Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell, 69, stood trial alongside Duckenfield in January and was found guilty of a health and safety offence for failing to ensure there were enough turnstiles to prevent unduly large crowds building up outside the ground.
He was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000.
Decision ‘a disgrace to this nation’
Margaret Aspinall, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, blamed a ‘morally wrong’ system for the verdict.
She added the verdict was a ‘disgrace’ to the nation.
At a press conference at the Cunard Building, she said: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.
“When 96 people, they say 95, we say 96, are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable.
“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?”
Mrs Aspinall thanked Liverpool fans, survivors of the disaster and the people of Liverpool for their support, as well as the Hillsborough Independent Panel and investigators.
She said: “What a disgrace this has been today and what a shame on this country of ours. I feel so embarrassed today that is the system within our country.
“I’m really angry. I’m trying to be calm for the sake of these families who suffered so much, for 30-odd years they have suffered.
“They’ve gone through hell, they’ve gone through all kinds. We’ve lost so many good family members.
“Now my concern is these families, I look at their faces. Please God, give them some peace. They deserve it.”
‘Unimaginable suffering to the families’
Sue Hemming, CPS director of legal services, acknowledged the suffering of those families of victims and survivors.
She said: “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.
“The events of 15 April 1989 have been considered on a number of occasions, including at the second inquest concluding in 2016.
“It is important to remember that criminal proceedings have a very different purpose to an inquest.
“The not guilty verdict today does not affect or alter the inquest jury’s findings of unlawful killing or their conclusion that Liverpool fans were in no way responsible for the 96 deaths that resulted.”
‘A huge disappointment for the families and survivors’
Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson called the jury’s verdict a ‘huge disappointment’ after those affected had to relive the events the tragedy through the trial.
A statement released via Liverpool City Council’s Twitter account read: "Today's outcome is a huge disappointment for the families, the survivors and for all of those still trying to come to terms with the disaster that unfolded at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989.
"In recent years they had to relive the events of that day by sitting through the longest inquest in British legal history, followed by two trials.
“The toll that it has taken on their health and wellbeing, in addition to losing their loved ones, is unimaginable and the whole city shares their pain.
"But despite the hurt and anger felt at this very difficult time, we must make sure that nothing is said or done that jeopardises a separate future trial."
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