On Tuesday, the longest criminal case in British legal history came to a conclusion.
The case concerned the deaths of 96 people in a crush on April 15th 1989 at the Hillsborough Stadium. The 96 men, women and children who died that day were attending Liverpool’s FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest.
All were Liverpool fans.
27 years later, the inquest jury was asked to deliver a verdict on 14 questions related to their deaths. They concluded that all people were unlawfully killed, which overturned the original verdict of accidental death from 1991. The jury determined that the behaviour of Liverpool fans, who were originally blamed for causing the crush, did not contribute to the deadly situation.
The layout and construction of the stadium played a role in the disaster. “Errors and omissions” on behalf of the commanding police officers contributed to the cause of the disaster. Similar “errors and omissions” made by the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance service also contributed to the deaths.
This inquest has implications beyond the absolution of blame for Liverpool fans and the victims among them.
In August 1990, 18 months after the disaster, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges against any individual or body. These individuals and bodies included the Police, Ambulance Service, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, and former Chief Superintendent of the South Yorkshire Police, David Duckenfield.
It was Duckenfield, the commanding officer at Hillsborough on April 15th, who made the decision to open the gates at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, significantly contributing to the crush. Last year, Duckenfield admitted that he “froze” during the disaster.
The conclusion of the inquest means that it can now be revealed that Duckenfield is among a group of key figures who are facing criminal charges for their involvement. Duckenfield, and other officials, are now under suspicion of 96 counts of gross negligence manslaughter.
As well as the manslaughter charges, there is a possibility that the crown prosecution service will pursue charges of perverting the course of justice. The CPS will receive the files by Christmas and charges are set to be brought by next March.
There is however, a significant legal obstacle to prosecuting Mr. Duckenfield. If the Crown wishes to pursue charges, they must first circumvent the “stay” of prosecution in place since 2000. This was put in place when Mr. Duckenfield was told he would not face a custodial sentence following a previous private prosecution.
This private case was unable to reach a verdict. The other impediment to a criminal case against Duckenfield is the possibilty that he would not receive a fair trial. Given that this inquest is the longest in British history and the emotional baggage it carries with it, the chances are seemingly slim.
The verdict itself is significant.
Even if criminal charges are not brought against Duckenfield or others, the implications are consequential. The families of the victims have seen their loved ones blamed for their own deaths. Liverpool’s fans have been admonished for their behaviour, which was blamed for causing the disaster.
The verdict of unlawful killing, and the exoneration of Liverpool fans and the victims, has regained some justice for them, 27 years later.