The 96 Liverpool football fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster were victims of “gross negligence” at the hands of match commander David Duckenfield, the inquest jury concluded.
unprepared for command
In a landmark verdict on Tuesday (April 26) the inquests’ jury said they had been killed unlawfully, which could now pave the way for criminal action.
The jurors declared that police and other emergency service personnel were responsible for the tragedy, and that fans had not contributed to the disaster.
The courtroom heard there were major omissions in the 1989 operational order, and that police response to increasing crowds outside the ground was "slow and uncoordinated".
On the question of unlawful killing, they said it was a majority decision. Seven agreed with this question — with the decision bringing to an end a 27-year battle for the truth waged by campaigners.
In reaching a decision over question six — widely seen as the most significant of the 14 asked of the nine person panel — the jury were told: “In order to answer ‘yes’ to that question [of unlawful killing], you would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the match commander, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence of those 96 people.
Coroner Sir John Goldring said they would have to be sure that Mr Duckenfield owed a duty of care to the 96 people who died, that he breached that duty of care, that his breach caused their deaths and that the breach amounted to “gross negligence”.
Since retiring to consider their decisions on Wednesday, April 6 the question over whether the 96 fans unlawfully died had appeared to be the one that had troubled the panel the most.
On Monday (April 25) Sir John told the jury he would accept a majority verdict over the question — meaning at least seven people needed to agree on the issue.
At 11am on Tuesday the jury’s decision was revealed - to the joy of the campaigners who have fought for justice for 27 years.
Former Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, who gave the order to open an exit gate onto Leppings Lane, allowing around 2,000 fans to flood into an already packed area behind the goal, was found to have breached his duty of care to football supporters.
The jury also announced that police errors were blamed for the dangerous situation at the turnstiles, failures by commanding officers caused the crush on the terraces, and police delayed declaring a major incident.
The public gallery applauded the jury as they left the court, and crowds were heard singing the Liverpool FC anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” outside the courtroom after the verdict was reached.
The Crown Prosecution Service will now consider if criminal charges should be brought.
Rachel Cerfontyne, deputy chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, said: “The conclusion of the inquests is another milestone and a day when my thoughts are with the families and friends of those who died as a result of the disaster.
“Now the inquests have ended our role in providing documents and other material to support the coroner is over. However the end of the inquests does not mark the end of the process.
“Our attention now focuses on concluding the criminal investigation into the aftermath of the disaster. This is by far the biggest and most complex investigation ever undertaken by the IPCC.”
There are two ongoing investigations into the 96 deaths — one led by the IPCC police watchdog and another as part of the Home Office’s Operation Resolve.
The staff association supporting Mr Duckenfield said the inquests have been a “long and extremely difficult process”.
The Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales (PSAEW), whose lawyers represent Mr Duckenfield, said it will continue to support former officers as the criminal inquiry into Hillsborough continues.Inquests’ findingsLiverpool fans were unlawfully killed; Fans were in no way to blame; There were “major omissions” in police planning and preparation for the semi-final; Police response to the increasing crowds at Leppings Lane was “slow and uncoordinated”; Errors by commanding officers contributed to the crush on the terrace; Commanding officers failed to recognise pens were at capacity; Design and layout of the crush barriers in pen three and four were not fully compliant with safety regulations; Ambulance officers at the scene failed to ascertain the scale of the problem and the failure to call a major incident led to delays in responses to the emergency; andA lack of communication, coordination and command and control by police.
See also:Supporters ‘played no part’ in causing 1989 tragedyAnswers that truly ended 27-year wait for justice in longest inquests hearing in British historyThe thin blue line in the thick of disasterHillsborough families accuse police of turning inquests into a 'battleground'Politicians' post-inquests: Thoughts and prayers on ‘greatest miscarriage of justice’Jury and coroner applauded by all in court at record-breaking inquestsBiggest 'inquiry of its kind in British investigative history continues'Police post-Hillsborough: Lessons to be learned, rebuilding trust and the 'burden' of censure on today's officers
On the question of whether the 96 were unlawfully killed, the Coroner told the jury it would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the match commander, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence.
During Mr Duckenfield’s evidence, Sir John asked him: “You are saying, are you, that a reasonably competent match commander would have foreseen where fans should go?”
Mr Duckenfield answered: “Yes.”
Sir John said: “You are saying that a reasonably competent match commander would have closed the tunnel?”
Mr Duckenfield replied: “Yes, sir.”
The coroner asked: “Does it, therefore, follow — tell me if I have misunderstood — that, on the day, you did not act as a reasonably competent match commander?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes, sir.”
On the fourth day the former officer gave evidence, a number of Hillsborough family members walked out of court as he told the inquests: “I am dreadfully sorry”.
Mr Duckenfield, who admitted lying about Liverpool fans forcing a gate to the ground, said: “The reason I have remained silent is this. I didn’t trust the press to put forward my thoughts or anybody else with the truth and honesty that I wanted.
“Furthermore when the panel report was published I hid myself away and could not bear the word Hillsborough and could not bear to think about it.
“I hope you understand this. I hoped it would go away.
“But then two years ago I had to force myself to look at matters and, as a result, I could only do so with the assistance of doctors. I think it is fair to say that since I have made great progress.
“Over this period, I have come to terms with reality, and that is why, over the period, you might say, I dug my head in the sand, didn’t admit things to myself, but I am now very much older, very much wiser, and very much more understanding of the events of the day and have decided to tell the whole truth.”
Michael Mansfield QC, representing 75 of the families, suggested Mr Duckenfield had known the whole truth from the beginning.
Mr Duckenfield: “On the day, I was traumatised and, like many things in life, you only remember the good days, and sometimes sadly and unfortunately, you bury the bad.
“As far as I’m concerned, I buried the bad to survive.”
Mr Mansfield asked: “What about the families? Did you think about them?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “Sir, it is now that I have thought very seriously about the families.
“I’ve seen a video of late, a very distressing video, and for the first time, I have seen what it means to a mother to lose a loved one, to lose a loved one, not only in these tragic circumstances, but to have to say their goodbyes so unexpectedly, in a gymnasium, on a dirty floor, cuddling that person tearfully, and you can’t share with that person your grief, your sorrow and your sadness.”
He added: “To the families, I say this, I am terribly sorry. It has now dawned on me what it means to you, and I am dreadfully sorry.”
Mr Duckenfield was asked about what he told senior officers and officials in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Mr Mansfield said: “Do you agree that you were prepared to practice a persistent and far reaching deceit?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “I have admitted my failings before this court.”
He was asked the question again and said: “I did sir.”
He said he had told Assistant Chief Constable Walter Jackson that he had ordered the opening of the exit gate to the stadium — allowing fans to enter the ground and go down the tunnel to the central pens where the crush happened —at the “earliest opportunity”.
He admitted he had deceived FA officials Graham Kelly and Glen Kirton and Sheffield Wednesday secretary Graham Mackrell when he told them fans had forced a gate to get into the ground.
He was then asked about a meeting of club officials in the boardroom at Hillsborough.
Mr Mansfield said: “You steadfastly deceived them as well, didn’t you?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes sir.”
Mr Duckenfield claimed he had no recollection of a meeting with Margaret Thatcher, but accepted he had been present when she visited the Hillsborough stadium the day after the disaster.
Mr Mansfield said: “Can you help us with what you might have said to her, if asked?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “I cannot sir, because I don’t recall speaking to her.”
Mr Duckenfield, the match commander on the day of tragedy in which 96 Liverpool fans died, was asked about the radio communications from the police control box as the disaster unfolded.
The court was shown video of a man collapsing on the pitch in front of the central pens at 3.04pm, and then shown a transcript of a call, at the same time, from the control box to headquarters requesting dog handlers to go to the ground.
Mr Duckenfield was asked why dog handlers might be needed, and said: “I have no idea, sir, other than possible contingency to put a line across the pitch for my secure area for rescue.”
The transcript showed a request at 3.06pm for Operation Support — a call for all officers to attend which was often used for public disorder situations.
Mr Duckenfield said: “I needed every available man to assist, not only in the rescue operation, but in the controlling of the area, to ensure the rescue operation took place efficiently.”
Rajiv Menon, on behalf of 75 of the families, said: “What rescue operation? You have yet to call for ambulances or fire crews?”
Mr Duckenfield said he thought he asked for a major incident to be called, although there was no record of that on the transcript.
The court heard that two minutes and 40 seconds after the call for dog handlers was made, a request for a fleet of ambulances was made.
At 3.13pm, seven minutes after the match was stopped, an operator from the control box requested the fire service to attend with equipment to cut down the fences of the pens.
Mr Duckenfield told the inquests South Yorkshire Police should have been warned that Liverpool fans would be late and drunk.
The match commander agreed measures could have been put in to prevent the crowds which built up outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles on April 15, 1989, but said there was no intelligence to suggest the situation would arise.
He said: “If Merseyside Police had been more forthcoming with the knowledge that their former chief constable gave to the inquests, that it was common knowledge that Liverpool fans arrived late, having had a drink, and expected to get in at the last minute, if I had had that knowledge I might have been able to act differently.”
Michael Mansfield QC, representing 75 of the families, said: “But that’s not what happened on this day. This wasn’t fans turning up late, having got into a drunken state was it?”
Mr Duckenfield said: “I think you and I will have to disagree on that.”
He referred to radio messages he had received in the control box on the day telling him about fans buying alcohol in a supermarket and spilling onto the road outside a pub.
He added: “I’ll stop there, because I have given you a flavour.”
Mr Mansfield said: “Were you getting any information from police on the outside that the question is, they were having trouble with Liverpool fans who were in a drunken state approaching the turnstiles?”
Mr Duckenfield replied: “I can’t recall, sir.”
Mr Mansfield said: “The answer is no, if you want to be honest about it.
“You had absolutely no indication that any Liverpool fans approaching Leppings Lane, coming down Leppings Lane, were causing trouble, that you would need to be warned about, were you?”
Mr Duckenfield replied: “Not that I recall, sir.”
Residents in the Dorset village where the former South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent lives said on Tuesday (April 26) that he “has not been around for a couple of days”. He is thought to be in Portugual.