A retired South Yorkshire police chief has been acquitted over the deaths of 95 innocent fans at Hillsborough following a disastrous finale for the 30-year campaign for justice by their families.
David Duckenfield, 75, walked free from court after jurors agreed he could not be held criminally responsible for the tragedy, despite his “gross failure” as match-day commander for Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest in 1989.
Under Duckenfield’s watch, nobody monitored numbers or safety in the build up to the tragedy, and he then failed to declare a major incident or enact emergency measures to free trapped supporters.
The jury took almost 14 hours to clear him of gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool supporters, including 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley.
Under the law at the time, there can be no prosecution for the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, as he died more than a year and a day after his injuries were caused.
Just an hour before Duckenfield was found not guilty, jurors were given a majority direction – meaning only nine of the 10 needed to agree on a verdict for it to be delivered.
Duckenfield refused to give evidence at Preston Crown Court but jurors accepted the argument of his QC, Ben Myers, that it was “wrong and unfair” that he should personally taking the blame for the catalogue of failings.
Mr Myers said the tragedy was already an inevitability due to poor stadium design, crowd behaviour, police behaviour and human error.
Duckenfield’s conviction had been billed as the crescendo of the longest and most complex series of legal hearings in British history.
The £60million police investigation leading to charges against him follows major reports into football safety and two inquests.
Relatives had privately expressed concerns as to whether the jury would be sufficiently responsive to the harrowing emotion of the case to be persuaded of Duckenfield’s guilt.
During a two-month trial, lead Crown barrister Richard Matthews QC – who typically specialises in health and safety cases – had told the jury of seven women and three men there should have been “nothing extraordinary” about the fixture, a re-run of a match between the same teams the previous season.
Instead, however, he said “there was an extraordinary series of collective and personal failures on the part of very many, if not all, of those who were responsible for the planning, organisation and management of the arrival, entry and accommodation of the 50,000 fans at the Hillsborough Stadium”.
To the families’ dismay, married Duckenfield, of Bournemouth, refused to give evidence, despite having previously told the inquest that he had inadequate experience to oversee the safety of 54,000 people.
He accepted responsibility for the deaths and also admitted at the inquests that even as the event was descending into horror, he had infamously lied, telling Graham Kelly, the then secretary of the Football Association, that Liverpool fans were to blame for gaining unauthorised entry through a large exit gate.
In fact, Duckenfield had himself ordered the gate to be opened to relieve a crush in the bottleneck approach to the Leppings Lane turnstiles.
He had been brought in as match-day commander just three weeks before the tragedy. Following the disaster, he developed alcohol problems and moved with his wife down to Bournemouth, where he has been living a reclusive existence.
Much of the harrowing evidence and testimonies from eyewitnesses was agreed by the defence and much of the trial was fought on technicalities surrounding Duckenfield’s duty of care.
Before the jury retired to consider their verdict, the judge, Sir Peter Openshaw, made a lengthy and strict order for jurors to ignore what they may have heard or read about the high profile case.
In April, Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell, 69, of Stocking Pelham, Hertfordshire, was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 towards prosecution costs after being found guilty of failing to discharge his duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
He was accused of failing to take reasonable care to ensure that the turnstile allocation and ticketing arrangements for the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium did not result in large crowds building up.
Former solicitor Peter Metcalf and former police officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster remain charged with perverting the course of justice.
Sir Norman Bettison, a former chief inspector accused of trying to blame Liverpool fans for the disaster, had all charges against him dropped last August.