David Duckenfield, the police commander at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, was on Thursday found not guilty of the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans who were crushed to death.
The families of the victims fought a decades-long campaign to see Duckenfield prosecuted over the 1989 disaster, which was the UK’s worst sporting tragedy with an eventual death toll of 96.
In 2016, after hearing two years of evidence, an inquest ruled they had been “unlawfully killed”, with jurors concluding policing decisions “caused or contributed” to the deaths, and amounted to “gross negligence”.
But the 75-year-old former officer was on Thursday cleared by a jury, following a six-week trial at Preston Crown Court in northwest England.
Gasps were heard from the public gallery as the jury foreman returned the verdict.
The tragedy came on April 15, 1989, at the FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held at the neutral venue of Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground.
Liverpool fans were already filling the fenced-in standing terrace at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium when police gave the order to open the gates and let in thousands more. The 96 were killed as a result of the subsequent crush; the youngest just 10 years old.
Under the law at the time, Duckenfield was not charged over the death of one victim who died more than a year and a day after the disaster.
Duckenfield did not give evidence, as he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Christine Burke, the daughter of Henry Burke who was killed in the tragedy, stood in the public gallery and addressed the judge after Thursday’s “not guilty” verdict.
She questioned how the inquest jury could have reached a different decision.
“I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death – because someone is,” she told the judge.
A “terrible lie” told by Duckenfield was said to have “no significance” in his first trial, but became key evidence in his retrial.
The court heard that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Duckenfield told Football Association boss Graham Kelly and his press chief Glen Kirton that a gate at the ground had been forced open by fans.
He did not tell them he, himself, had authorised the opening of the exit gates, allowing crowds outside to surge into the already packed stand and head down a tunnel to the central pens of the terrace, where the fatal crush happened.
In his evidence at inquests into the deaths in 2015, Duckenfield admitted it had been a “terrible lie” and apologised “unreservedly” to the families.
But, the jury in the first trial, which began in January, did not hear that evidence and in his summing up of the case judge Sir Peter Openshaw said it “wasn’t in the least surprising” Duckenfield had told the officials the gate had been forced.
He said other officers, including Chief Inspector Malcolm Edmundson in police headquarters and Sergeant Michael Goddard and Chief Inspector Robert McRobbie in the control box with Duckenfield on April 15 1989, had formed that impression when exit gates to the ground were opened briefly at 2:48pm, allowing 100 to 150 fans in.
Minutes after that, Duckenfield gave the order for the gate to be opened again and more than 2,000 Liverpool fans entered.
Sir Peter said: “Since the impression that Chief Inspector Edmundson had and indeed that Sergeant Goddard had from listening to those messages was that supporters forced their way in through the gates at Leppings Lane and since Chief Inspector McRobbie came to precisely the same impression, it isn’t therefore in the least surprising Mr Duckenfield had that impression and passed it on to Mr Kirton from the FA.”
He added: “I direct you in clear terms that as evidence as turned out in this trial what Mr Duckenfield said to Mr Kirton after the match has no significance in the case at all and you should put it out of your mind.”
In the second trial, Richard Matthews QC, prosecuting, told jurors in the opening speech about the “very misleading” comments.
He said: “The prosecution allege it is evidence that David Duckenfield had realised he had at least some personal responsibility for what had happened that led to the deaths.”
The jury heard evidence from the public inquiry led by Lord Justice Taylor in 1989, where Duckenfield admitted he “may have misled” Kelly, as well as the evidence he gave to the 2015 inquests.
Benjamin Myers QC, defending, cautioned against using the lie as a “shortcut to conviction”.
Summing up the retrial, Sir Peter set out the arguments of both prosecution and defence.
He told the jury: “The question arises as to what, if anything, to make of Mr Duckenfield’s statement that the gate had been forced.”
The police have repeatedly been accused of blaming fans for the tragedy.
Duckenfield’s lawyers tried to show “positively misleading” videos of football hooliganism to the jury in his trial, it can now be revealed.
Myers made applications to show videos of hooliganism and crowd surges twice during the first trial of the retired chief superintendent and again during his retrial.
Rejecting the application for a final time earlier this month, judge Sir Peter Openshaw said: “The fact is, I just do not see how footage of these truly shocking disorders can assist the jury in determining any of the issues in this case.
“It is, in my judgment, not relevant, not admissible, indeed I will go further and say I regard it as positively misleading.”
He said it showed “among the worst cases of football hooliganism ever filmed”, but none of it involved supporters of Liverpool.
Myers argued it was the kind of material which lay behind the police concerns for violent behaviour on the day.
He said: “If the jury do not understand the seriousness of the situation that concerned the police they will not understand how those, particularly in the police control box, will have viewed what they saw in Leppings Lane.”