herald

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Justice in sight for the 96 as senior Hillsborough officers face charges

Liverpool fans trying to escape during the Hillsborough disaster
Liverpool fans trying to escape during the Hillsborough disaster

Prosecutors yesterday announced they will charge a former senior police commander with manslaughter over the 1989 Hillsborough disaster that left 96 people dead - long-awaited vindication for the families of the victims after authorities spent years blaming Liverpool fans for the catastrophe.

The charges announced against former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and five others were met with applause from victims' relatives.

The families have waged a decades-long quest for justice for their loved ones after the deaths were initially ruled accidental - a decision that was overturned in 2012 after a wide-ranging inquiry found a cover-up by police.

Inquest

Last year, a new inquest found that all 96 fans had been unlawfully killed and an independent police investigation asked prosecutors to consider criminal charges in the case.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced its highly anticipated decision yesterday, filing charges against four police officers, a lawyer and an official from Sheffield Wednesday, whose stadium was the venue for the match on April 15, 1989.

Barry Devonside, whose 18-year-old son, Christopher, was among those killed, pumped his fist after the charges were made public.

"Everybody applauded when it was announced that the most senior police officer on that particular day will have charges presented to him," he said.

Duckenfield, the police commander on the day of the tragedy, faced the most serious charge - gross negligence manslaughter in the deaths of 95 men, women and children.

Duckenfield's failures in discharging his "personal responsibility were extraordinarily bad and contributed substantially to the deaths", prosecutors said.

They declined to issue a manslaughter charge related to the 96th fatality because the young man, Tony Bland, died four years after the fateful match.

David Duckenfield
David Duckenfield

Others charged were former South Yorkshire Police Chief Inspector Norman Bettison, who was charged with misconduct in public office for allegedly lying about the disaster and its aftermath.

Peter Metcalf, a police solicitor, was charged with acting "with intent to pervert the course of public justice" for allegedly suggesting changes to officers' statements.

Former Chief Superintendent Donald Denton was accused of overseeing the changes to the statements and former Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster was accused of being central to the process.

Graham Mackrell, the former secretary and safety officer for Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, which operated Hillsborough Stadium, was charged with failing to carry out health and safety duties.

Speaking before the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was a "day of really mixed emotions" for the families of the fans who died, adding that justice was moving forward "after so many years of waiting".

The tragedy in Sheffield unfolded when more than 2,000 Liverpool fans flooded into a standing-room section behind a goal, when the 54,000-capacity stadium was nearly full for an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest.

Family members of victims embrace after the charges were announced
Family members of victims embrace after the charges were announced

The victims were smashed against metal anti-riot fences or trampled underfoot. Many suffocated in the crush. The original inquest recorded verdicts of accidental death. However, the families challenged that ruling and pressed for a new inquiry.

They succeeded in getting the verdicts overturned by the High Court in 2012 after the far-reaching probe that examined previously secret documents and found wrongdoing and mistakes by authorities.

The disaster prompted a sweeping modernisation of stadiums across Britain, where terraces like the one that contributed to the trampling of fans were commonplace.

Transformed

Top-division stadiums were largely transformed into safer, all-seater venues, with fences around the playing surface torn down.

"Criminal proceedings have now commenced, and the defendants have a right to a fair trial," said head prosecutor Sue Hemming.

British law strictly limits what can be reported about a case once charges have been made, and Ms Hemming said that "it is extremely important that there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings".

Trevor Hicks, whose daughters Sarah and Vicki died in the disaster, said yesterday's charges were more than just a victory for the victims' families.

"This is a success for society at large, not just for us," said Mr Hicks.

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