Hillsborough verdicts special report: Families claim '˜cover-up' started within hours of disaster
Families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster said they had waited 27 years to hear their loved ones had been unlawfully killed.
On an emotional day after an inquest process lasting more than two years, hundreds of relatives of those who were killed were in court in Warrington to hear the jury deliver verdicts.
The jury found ‘gross negligence’ on the part of match commander David Duckenfield had resulted in the deaths – while the fans were cleared of any blame.
The inquests also found that South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service had ‘caused or contributed to the loss of lives’ by their flawed handling of the emergency response.
The 1991 accidental deaths verdicts from the original inquests were quashed following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report after a long campaign by the families of the dead.
Leading Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster, said afterwards: “We have waited 27 years to get where we are. It is a disgrace we have had to wait 27 years. We have had two years of hell going up and down to court each day.
“But at the end, it has been worth it. We have made history.”
Prime minister David Cameron said the verdicts showed that Liverpool supporters had been ‘utterly blameless’.
The jurors were told they could only reach the unlawful killing determination if they were sure of four ‘essential’ matters concerning the deaths at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.
They had to be convinced match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died, and that he was in breach of that duty of care.
Thirdly, they would need to be satisfied that his breach of duty caused the deaths and, fourthly, that it amounted to ‘gross negligence’.
They concluded it was unlawful killing by a 7-2 majority.
The jury also ruled that fan behaviour did not cause or contribute to the tragedy.
The Hillsborough Disaster unfolded during Liverpool’s cup tie against Nottingham Forest on April 15 as thousands of fans were crushed at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.
Mr Duckenfield gave the order at 2.52pm to open exit Gate C in Leppings Lane, allowing around 2,000 fans to flood into the already packed central pens behind the goal.
The jury said there had been a ‘lack of co-ordination, command and control which delayed or prevented appropriate responses’ in the police’s emergency response, while the failure of the ambulance service to call a major incident had also led to delays in fans receiving treatment.
Trevor Hicks, the father of teenage sisters Sarah and Vicki Hicks, who both died at Hillsborough, criticised police attempts to ‘slander’ supporters with blame for the disaster.
He said: “The people of Sheffield were wonderful on the day and many of the bobbies were. What we are talking about is the command and control.
“There were two disasters – one on the day and the totally and utterly preventable one that followed afterwards. Even ‘disgrace’ isn’t good enough to convey what has gone on for so long.
“We have been faced with slander upon slander, insult upon insult. It has been totally and utterly unnecessary.”
He said he believed attempts to deflect blame on ‘drunken’ fans for the disaster had begun within hours of the semi-final finishing and inside the stadium.
“It started in the gymnasium [where bodies of the dead were taken]. I remember when we were giving statements we were asked several times about what we had to drink, even though we had two teenage daughters and a packed lunch.
“When I said ‘coffee and coke’, they looked at us as if we were lying. It started within a few hours and only ended today.”
Mr Hicks said: “Today is a good day for the public, not necessarily for the establishment.
“It isn’t finished yet.”
It came as lawyers for the Hillsborough families said both South Yorkshire Police and Yorkshire Ambulance Service sought to ‘minimise’ their responsibility during the fresh inquests despite previous public admission.
In legal argument – not before the jury – it was said that both organisations had previously, and in some detail, admitted responsibility for their roles in the disaster.
Each did so following publication of the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report, the court heard, with ‘fulsome apologies’ still on their respective websites.
However, a different picture emerged during the hearings in Warrington, said Pete Weatherby QC, in an application to the Coroner Sir John Goldring, for him to make ‘prevent future deaths’ reports after the jury conclusions.
Mr Weatherby submitted: “Despite their public stance, both organisations have sought to minimise their responsibility through their conduct in these inquests, to the extent that the jury is unaware of any acceptance of responsibility or fault.
“This institutional defensiveness risks subverting the process and raises a clear inference that these two organisations are preoccupied with their own position rather than engaged in a learning process which could lead them to adopt processes which would prevent future major incident deaths.”
Michael Mansfield, one of the lawyers for the families, called for apologies for claims about Liverpool supporters he said had been proven false in court, including that some supporters had stolen from those lying dead and injured.
“The inquest has shown there is no doubt that did not happen. It was a bald and reprehensible lie.
“We would like apologies for each of those lies sticking in the hearts of Liverpool fans for all those years.”