Hillsborough inquests jury to consider ‘unlawful killings’ verdict

File photo dated 15/04/1989 of overcrowding at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, as the coroner presiding over the fresh inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, will begin summing up the evidence today. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo: David Giles/PA Wire

File photo dated 15/04/1989 of overcrowding at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, as the coroner presiding over the fresh inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, will begin summing up the evidence today. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo: David Giles/PA Wire

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A jury is to consider whether the 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed.

Coroner Sir John Goldring has started summing up the evidence in the fresh hearings into the deaths at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final ahead of a jury retiring to consider their verdicts.

Lord Justice Goldring, the coroner presiding over the fresh inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. Photo: Neil Jones/PA Wire

Lord Justice Goldring, the coroner presiding over the fresh inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. Photo: Neil Jones/PA Wire

He said one of the questions the jury will be asked to consider is whether the Liverpool supporters who died were unlawfully killed.

The coroner said: “In order to answer ‘yes; to that question, you would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the match commander, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence of those 96 people.

“When answering this question we are looking at Mr Duckenfield’s conduct and his responsibility.”

Sir John Goldring told the seven women and three men of the jury that at the end of the inquests lasting nearly two years, one of the key issues they will have to decide is whether the behaviour of South Yorkshire Police’s then Chief Superintendent amounted to a criminal act.

The Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield

The Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield

But Sir John warned them before the top officer at the match on the day can be held responsible for causing, or being one of the causes of the catastrophe, they must be sure of a series of legal questions.

He suggested the jury may look at Mr Duckenfield’s professional background, his lack of experience as a commander of a big football match, and his preparation before the game as they make their deliberations.

They may also, Sir John suggested, look at his actions on the day before and after the fateful decision at 2.52pm when he ordered the opening of Gate C, allowing around 2,000 fans to flood into the already packed central pens behind the goal on Leppings Lane.

Mr Duckenfield at first did not say police had ordered the gate to be opened as rumours the fans had forced them open began to circulate - a ‘lie by omission’, he later told the hearing.

Around 50 relatives of victims sat in silence as Sir John began going through the legal directions before he will start three weeks of summing up the evidence.

The jury was given a 33-page questionnaire asking questions about the role of Mr Duckenfield, and including questions on the behaviour of the Liverpool fans, the police, emergency services and stadium safety.

But the sixth question involved directly Mr Duckenfield and his role in the disaster on April 15 1989, as the FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest kicked off.

To find the fans were unlawfully killed and Mr Duckenfield’s conduct was responsible, the jury was told they must answer four key questions.

Firstly, that as match commander he owed a duty of care to the 96 who died - and it is agreed by the former officer’s own lawyers that he did.

Secondly, that he was in breach of that duty of care - by analysing his conduct of what he did, did not or should have done before and on the day.

Thirdly, they must be sure his breach of duty caused or contributed to the deaths ‘not merely in a minimal way’.

Finally, the jury must be sure that Mr Duckenfield’s breach of duty of care as the match commander was so bad it amounted to ‘gross negligence’, so bad it was equal to a criminal act or omission.

Unless they are sure on all the four questions they should not conclude the fans were unlawfully killed, jurors were told.

Referring to Mr Duckenfield’s ‘lie by omission’, Sir John told jurors they had to be sure he deliberately lied and, if they were sure, then ask themselves why.

He said: “If it may have been for a reason, such as panic or because he was fraught or not thinking clearly, or because he was afraid that, at the time, stating the gates had been opened by the police might run the risk of public disorder, then the lie does not help you say whether he was responsible for any critical mistakes before the disaster.

“If, on the other hand, you were sure that he deliberately lied because he knew that as a result of his order to open the gates he was responsible for the crushing in the pens and the disaster which was unfolding and he was subsequently trying to blame the fans, then the lie becomes relevant.”

Sir John said there was ‘no dispute’ that each of the 96 Liverpool fans suffered fatal injuries from a crush in the West Stand of Hillsborough Stadium but jurors would have to consider the surrounding circumstances which may have contributed to deaths.

He said the jury cannot find anyone guilty of a criminal offence.

He said he required them to perform three tasks - fill in an individual questionnaire for each of those who died, fill in a general questionnaire and complete a record of inquest containing personal information about those who died.

The general questionnaire, split into 14 sections, asks about the underlying factors “which may have played a part in the disaster”.

The coroner explained: “Whether, for example, opportunities were lost which might have prevented it or have saved lives.”

Individual questionnaires would focus on the medical cause of death and time of death.

The former Court of Appeal judge, acting as Assistant Coroner for South Yorkshire (East) and West Yorkshire (West), is expected to take up to three weeks to sum up the evidence.

The inquests will then adjourn for the half-term break in mid-February and are due to reconvene on February 22 when the jury is expected to be sent out to reach its determinations.

The tragedy unfolded on April 15 1989 during Liverpool’s FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest as thousands of fans were crushed on Sheffield Wednesday’s Leppings Lane terrace.

The 1991 verdicts from the original inquests were quashed following the damning 2012 report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which concluded there was a cover-up that attempted to shift the blame for the tragedy on to its victims.

The hearings into Britain’s worst sporting disaster at a specially built courtoom in Warrington, Cheshire, started on March 31 2014.

More than 260 days of evidence have been heard at 305 Bridgewater Place at the town’s Birchwood Park business park.

In his opening remarks to the jury on Monday, Sir John said: “It is now a long time ago that I opened the case to you. It is now, as you know, my task to sum it up.

“I feel I shall take quite a bit longer in doing so than I did in opening it.”

He said the purpose of his summing up was to give legal directions and to summarise evidence.

Evidence on topics would be summarised in the order they were heard during the inquests - stadium safety, preparation and planning for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, the events of April 15 including the emergency response and the gathering of evidence by South Yorkshire Police.

Finally the summing up would turn to the 96 people who died, their experiences, the injuries they suffered and the treatment they received.

He told jurors: “The law is for me and the facts of what happened for you. You decide the facts, you decide what happened.

“You decide what evidence you accept, you decide what evidence you reject. You decide what evidence is important and what evidence is unimportant.”

He said the purpose of the inquests was to answer four questions about the deaths under investigation - who the person was and when, where and how they died.

He said: “As in many inquests the question of how the person came by his or her death is the most important, difficult and controversial.”

Referring to the general questionnaire, he said a familiar question would be whether there was some error, omission or circumstance that caused or contributed to the disaster and whether it was a significant rather than a minimal contribution.

When considering what should have been done on the day of the disaster or beforehand, jurors should apply the standard of conduct at the time and not make judgments based on hindsight.

The coroner said the jury must put emotions aside when they consider the case.

He said: “We’ve heard a great deal of most moving and distressing evidence.

“We would not be human if we did not feel powerful human sympathy for those touched in their different ways by the disaster and its aftermath.

“It is particularly impossible not to feel great sympathy for those who lost loved ones or to have been moved by what we heard about each of those who died during the course of the inquests.”

He added: “Whatever your feelings, you must put them to one side.

“You have to assess the evidence dispassionately and without emotion.

“Your findings should be based on that dispassionate assessment of the evidence you have heard.

“You should not make critical findings unless they are justified by the facts.

“However you should not shrink from making such judgements if they are.”

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