Hillsborough: 96 soccer fans unlawfully killed, jury finds

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Long fight for truth over disaster in which 96 fans died

Police planning errors caused or contributed to disaster

Jurors find fan behavior played no part in tragedy

CNN  — 

After more than two years, a British inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough soccer stadium tragedy in which 96 men, women and children died, has delivered its verdicts on a series of key questions. It is the longest case heard by a jury in British legal history.

The jury’s findings include:

– The 96 Liverpool fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed, jurors concluded by a 7-2 majority.

– Match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield’s actions amounted to “gross negligence” due to breach of his duty of care to fans.

– Police planning errors caused or contributed to the dangerous situation that developed on the day of the disaster.

– The 96 victims were killed due to crushing following the admission of a large number of fans through an exit gate.

– Fan behavior did not cause or contribute to the tragedy.

– Both the police and the ambulance service caused or contributed to the loss of life by error or omission after the crush had begun to develop

– The UK Crown Prosecution Service will now consider criminal charges.

– Individual inquest into the 96 show times of death between 14.57 and 16.50

– Relatives of victims sing Liverpool Football Club anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as they emerge from court in Warrington after verdicts delivered.

– Club hails inquest findings as “a landmark day for all affected by the Hillsborough tragedy.”

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Families break out in song after Hillsborough verdict
01:39 - Source: CNN

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Pete Weatherby, a lawyer representing some of the bereaved families, told a Hillsborough Justice Campaign news conference: “The jury has vindicated the long, long journey of the families to obtain justice and make those responsible for the disaster accountable.”

Mr Weatherby said there had been “concerted attempts to cover up” what happened and paid tribute to the “dignity and tenacity” of the families in their battle for justice.

“The disaster was entirely avoidable and caused by catastrophic human failure,” he said, focusing on what he called “a catastrophic policing failure by South Yorkshire Police.”

Mr Weatherby said the families had been forced to endure “lies by senior officers and vile abuse in parts of the media” in the years after the tragedy in what he said was “a culture of denial writ large.”

Barry Devonside, who lost his 18-year-old son Chris at Hillsborough, told the news conference: “South Yorkshire Police and senior officers tried to deflect the blame onto the supporters.

“That campaign to deny the truth came to an end with the conclusions of the inquest.”

Mr Devonside thanked the jurors for their “remarkable commitment.”

Stephen Wright, the brother of Graham Wright, who was 17 when he died in the disaster, said: “Our loved ones could have lived but for the gross failings of the police.”

David Crompton, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, said in a statement after the inquest verdicts were delivered that the force had got the policing of the match “catastrophically wrong.”

He said: “I want to make it absolutely clear that we unequivocally accept the verdict of unlawful killing and the wider findings reached by the jury in the Hillsborough inquests.

“On 15th April 1989, South Yorkshire Police got the policing of the FA Cup semifinal at Hillsborough catastrophically wrong.

“The force failed the victims and failed their families. Today, as I have said before, I want to apologize unreservedly to the families and all those affected.”

He added that the force “will now take time to carefully reflect on the implications of the verdicts.”

In a statement, Liverpool FC chief executive officer Ian Ayre said: “After 27 long years the true verdict has finally been delivered, confirming what the families always believed – their loved ones were unlawfully killed.

“Liverpool Football Club welcomes the jury’s decision, once and for all, that our supporters were not in any way responsible for what happened at Hillsborough.”

Hillsborough disaster: ‘Any fan would have known people were in trouble’

In his office in Yorkshire, Trevor Hicks takes a worn yellow envelope out of a binder. He carefully folds back the flap, pulling out a pair of gold hoop earrings and a small, square piece of paper.

The items belonged to his youngest daughter, and they are all he has left from the day everything changed.

He looks at the crinkled piece of paper that was her match ticket. “Well it was a death pass, wasn’t it, in the end?” he says quietly.

April 15, 1989, began like any other big match day. Liverpool Football Club was to play Nottingham Forest in the semifinals of England’s FA Cup. The chosen venue was a neutral ground – Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the home of Sheffield Wednesday.

Trevor and Jenni Hicks with their daughters Vicki (far left) and Sarah

Fans of both teams flocked to the stadium from across the country. Among them were the Hicks family – Trevor, his wife Jenni, and their two teenage daughters, Sarah and Vicki.

“It was the one thing we did as a family,” Trevor says. “Support Liverpool Football Club.”

The girls were avid fans. They knew stats about all the players, and had posters on their walls. The 1980s were a great time to be a Liverpool supporter. The team had dominated English and European competitions for years, and the expectations for 1989 were no different.

Read: Liverpool defeat Dortmund in Europa League thriller

‘The English disease’

But football itself was very different back then. It was scarred by hooliganism, with a minority of fans prone to drunkenness, organized violence and pitch invasions. In the prevailing attitude, all fans were painted with that brush. Across Europe, football hooliganism had become known as the “English disease.”

Four years before Hillsborough, 39 fans had been killed in a stadium stampede at a European Cup final between Liverpool and Italian club Juventus.

Football grounds were also different. In the 1980s, the amount of seating was often limited, with many supporters instead standing on tiered concrete steps known as terraces.

Because of the problem of hooliganism, fences were constructed around these terraces, splitting them into individual pens and keeping fans corralled inside from the sides and the front.

On top of that, most stadiums were old and decrepit, not in any shape to be holding the number of people that they did.

“The condition of the stadiums… we took it for granted,” says Phil Scraton, researcher and author of the book Hillsborough: The Truth. “We would cheer when people were handed down who fainted [on the terraces], and they were handed down to the front and passed over to the ambulance people. We cheered – it was just part of the way it was.”

Read: Spirit of Shankly – the abandoned village that bred footballers

‘I desperately wanted to stand with the girls’

On April 15, 1989, more than 50,000 football fans wove their way through the residential streets surrounding Hillsborough.

The Leppings Lane end of the ground would be dedicated to Liverpool’s fans. Nearly half of them were expected to pass, single-file, through just 23 narrow turnstiles that led to the terracing on the lower level of the two-deck stand.

Included in that group was the Hicks family. “We had three tickets for the standing and one for the seating,” says Jenni. “I desperately wanted to stand with the girls but, as it turned out, it was the girls who said: ‘No mum, you’re too little. You won’t be able to see.’”

Jenni went off to her seat. Trevor wanted a cup of coffee, so the girls went down a tunnel marked “standing” that led to central pens three and four of the Leppings Lane terrace.

Back outside the turnstiles, a crush was beginning to develop. There were too many people trying to get through as kickoff approached. One decision made by police to ease the growing congestion outside the stand would prove to have devastating consequences inside.

The order to open Gate C

On matchday, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, of South Yorkshire Police, had a big task ahead of him. Just two weeks earlier, he had been assigned as the officer in charge of the Hillsborough semifinal. It was his first big match.

Faced with the overcrowding at the Leppings Lane turnstiles, Duckenfield made a decision. He gave the order to open Gate C, an exit gate, to ease the crush of Liverpool supporters trying to get in.

An additional 2,000 fans streamed in but, once inside, there were no officials on hand to tell them where to go. All they saw was the tunnel marked standing, taking them into pens three and four, which were already over-full.

“It didn’t look right to me when I first took my seat,” Jenni recalls. “All the supporters seemed to be in the middle.”

“As things developed, you could see there was not just the normal crush in there,” Trevor adds.

‘It was obvious it wasn’t a pitch invasion’

The game kicked off, as scheduled, at 3pm. Jenni doesn’t even remember that happening. Her focus was solely on the two central pens, where her teenage daughters were standing.

As Trevor had gone to get himself a coffee, he had noticed a sign pointing to the side pens instead of to the tunnel. He was not in the central pens but, like his wife, was watching them intently. That’s when he noticed that people were trying to climb over the fence.

Vicki (right) and Sarah Hicks, pictured on a family holiday.

“It was obvious to any of us – it wasn’t a pitch invasion,” he says. “Any football fan in the world who was there would have known that people were in trouble.”

The fences around the pens at Hillsborough trapped the fans at the sides and the front. And because of the surge of additional fans from the opening of the exit gate, they were trapped from the back as well. They couldn’t move, they couldn’t breathe. They were being crushed.

Six minutes into the game, play was stopped. The teams were sent from the pitch. Liverpool fans began helping their injured fellow supporters, using pitchside advertising boards as makeshift stretchers. Jenni made her way from the seats back out to Leppings Lane to wait for her family.

“You keep this hope that it doesn’t happen to you,” she says. “It’s not going to be my family – keep it together, it’s not going to be your family. It was just chaotic really, and then more and more fans come out. And then finally nobody came.”

‘There were casualties all around us’

Back on the terrace, Trevor had been searching desperately for his two girls. When he found them, they were lying almost side by side on the grass of the playing area.

“There were casualties all over the pitch, all around us,” he remembers. “We put Vicki in an ambulance, and we turned to get Sarah, but the ambulance started to move off. And what I’ve often said was one of the low points was do I go or do I stay?”

Trevor made the painful decision to leave 19-year-old Sarah behind. He figured there would be another ambulance right behind to help her. But none came.

He rode with 15-year-old Vicki to the Northern General Hospital. Shortly after they arrived, she was pronounced dead.

In a time before cellphones and social media, Jenni had no way of knowing where her family was. No one had any information. Families were bounced from hospital to hospital, and then sent to a run-down boy’s club to wait.

Eventually, Jenni was reunited with Trevor. They still didn’t know where Sarah was, or whether she was still alive.

Vicki (left) and Sarah Hicks, seen during a visit to Liverpool's Anfield ground.

They were taken to Hillsborough’s gymnasium, which had become a temporary morgue. At the very least, they were told, they could see Vicki there.

“Before we could see her, we had to look at this big green board, and it had Polaroid photographs of all the dead on it,” Jenni says.

“They asked us to identify our daughters, but I said we’re only looking for Sarah. So we looked at the board, and I think there were 80 or so photographs at this point.

“I didn’t see Sarah, and I can remember the sense of relief that she wasn’t on this board. So I said to the police officer that was sitting beside the board: ‘She’s not there,’ and I was really pleased because I thought this meant she was still alive somewhere.

“And he said: ‘Look again, love.’ And when I looked again, I saw her. And that’s when I realized it was both of them.”

“You’re trying to get your head around it,” Trevor says. “You go to a football match on a lovely sunny morning and you come home without your daughters, who are in a body bag back in Sheffield.”

Sarah, Vicki, and 94 others lost their lives that day in April 1989. It remains Britain’s deadliest sporting disaster.

The lie of ‘the truth’

But the nightmare would continue. In the immediate aftermath, the police claimed drunk, ticketless fans had arrived late at the stadium, causing the crush and the deaths.

The lie went around the world almost immediately, spread on radio and television broadcasts. A few days later, the headline “The Truth,” on the front page of British tabloid newspaper The Sun, made this tragic situation even worse.

“People initially were stunned that the truth could be so quickly fabricated,” Scraton says. “Within days, they were being held responsible for the deaths of their loved ones or their friends.

“So it hit people at their most traumatized, and I think it united the city and the region around a search for what they considered to be the real truth.”

The lie was obvious to Trevor and Jenni, too. The identification of their two girls turned into an interrogation, including endless questions about what they had had to drink that day.

“Trevor was talking about this being a cover-up,” Jenni says. “He said: ‘You can see by the questions we’re being asked in the media, what the media is saying, that there’s a dirty tricks campaign going on with the South Yorkshire Police. We’ve got to fight these allegations, we’ve got to make sure that the real truth is told about what happened.’”

The Hillsborough Independent Panel

The fight for the real truth spanned more than two decades. Through inquests, investigations, and denials, the “truth” of Hillsborough remained.

Then came a government agreement for all documents related to the tragedy to be released and handed to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool.

The panel sifted through more than 450,000 pages. The evidence they found was overwhelming, and shocking.

As many as 41 of the 96 victims could have been saved if they had received prompt medical attention.

Hundreds of police statements had been altered – lines removed, words copied, passages changed, to fit the storyline that fans were to blame.

The evidence didn’t end there. The blood alcohol level of every deceased supporter, including from a child as young as 10, was taken on the night of the disaster. Criminal records were searched for in an attempt to “impugn reputations,” the panel found.

Hillsborough’s safety license was 10 years out of date, and the number of turnstiles at Leppings Lane was never going to be enough to accommodate the number of fans.

Duckenfield’s admission

The report, delivered to the families on September 12, 2012, was a crucial turning point. The original inquest verdict from 1990, of accidental death, was thrown out.

A new inquest was ordered, and began on March 31, 2014. Trevor and Jenni were there. So were relatives of most of the 96.

“We think the truth will be out this time,” Trevor said that day. “Obviously public opinion is more on our side than it was last time. All we’re asking for is the facts, the truth, and only what we should have had 25 years ago.”

Evidence was heard on the circumstances of each victim’s death. Months passed by. And then, a year after the inquest began, Duckenfield was called to testify. After the disaster, he had claimed that the exit gate was forced open by fans.

On March 11, 2015, he took the witness stand to answer questions from counsel Christina Lambert.

Ms. Lambert: Did you believe that the unauthorised access of fans at 2:48pm was either a cause or part of the cause of the problem?

Mr. Duckenfield: Ma’am, the only thing I can think of, it was a chapter in a sequence of events. But being absolutely honest about the situation, I made a dreadful mistake, not realizing the consequences of what I was doing.

Ms. Lambert: So that we follow you, which dreadful mistake are you referring to?

Mr. Duckenfield: [It] was not telling Mr Kelly [Graham Kelly, the then chief executive of the Football Association] that the gates had been opened by me and that may have contributed to the disaster.

Ms. Lambert: Do you now consider that you told Mr Kelly and others something that was not true?

Mr. Duckenfield: Yes, ma’am.

Ms. Lambert: Do you consider now that you told them a lie?

Mr. Duckenfield: Yes, ma’am.

His admission was met with gasps from the relatives in the room.

‘There can be no closure for Hillsborough’

April 15 this year saw the last official Hillsborough memorial service to be held at Liverpool’s Anfield ground. The families, and the survivors, are ready to remember those lost in private after the public battle they have had to wage for the past 27 years.

“People talk about the word ‘closure,’” Scraton says. “It is an arrogant word imposed by those who have not suffered on those who have.

“There can be no closure for Hillsborough. They have lost their loved ones in circumstances that were wholly avoidable. What you can do through delivering justice, and delivering the truth, is to help people cope with their loss better, and help them to live life better.”

For Trevor and Jenni, life goes on, together, but apart. The strain of the aftermath of the disaster was too much for their 23-year marriage. Just 15 months after the events of Hillsborough, they were divorced.

But the constant that remains is the love for their two daughters, Sarah and Vicki.

“They’re still a huge part of my life now,” Jenni says. “I get so much love from them. My love has grown for them – it hasn’t diminished. And I know I get that love back.”