PRESTON, England – The man in control of police operations at the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium tragedy was cleared by a jury on Thursday of gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans in Britain’s worst sports disaster.
Gasps were heard from the public gallery after jurors at Preston Crown Court in northern England found David Duckenfield not guilty following a trial which lasted more than six weeks.
The prosecution in the case alleged Duckenfield, who is now 75, had a “personal responsibility” for what happened at the FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989, where 96 people — all Liverpool fans – were fatally injured in a crush inside the stadium.
Duckenfield denied 95 counts. There can be no prosecution for the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, because he died more than a year and a day after his injuries.
Duckenfield sat, impassive, in front of the dock with his hands clasped and then drank from a glass of water as the foreman of the jury delivered the verdict.
One of the female jurors walked out in tears as the jury filed out of the courtroom.
Christine Burke, the daughter of Henry Burke, who was killed in the tragedy, stood in the public gallery and addressed the judge.
“With all due respect, my lord, 96 people were found unlawfully killed to a criminal standard,” she said. “I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death because someone is.”
Duckenfield’s lawyer, Ian Lewis, speaking on behalf of the former chief superintendent, said: “David is of course relieved that the jury has found him not guilty, however his thoughts and sympathies remain with the families of those who lost their loved ones.”
The original verdicts of accidental death for the victims were overturned in 2012 after documents uncovered mistakes by authorities and a cover-up by police, following a long campaign by families of the victims.
Duckenfield stood trial earlier this year but the jury was discharged after failing to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered.
Duckenfield did not give evidence in the trial because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Evidence presented in court showed Duckenfield ordered the opening of exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough ground eight minutes before the game kicked off, after the area outside the turnstiles became dangerously overcrowded.
More than 2,000 fans entered through one of the exit gates once it was opened and many headed for the tunnel ahead of them, which led to the central pens where the crush happened.
The court was played audio of Duckenfield 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.
Defense lawyer Benjamin Myers told the jury Duckenfield did “what he was expected to do as match commander.”
“He didn’t breach his duty,” Myers said, “he did what he was expected to do in difficult circumstances.”
At a news conference after the verdict, Margaret Aspinall, who chairs the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said the verdict was a “disgrace to this nation” because “not one person is accountable” for the deaths of the Liverpool fans.
“The question I’d like to ask all of you, and people within the system, is who put 96 people in their graves,” she said, “who is accountable?”
A former official of Sheffield Wednesday soccer club, Graham Mackrell, stood trial with Duckenfield in January and was found guilty of failing to discharge his duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The club’s home ground was Hillsborough.