Hillsborough tragedy: Families of 96 victims again left grappling for answers after not-guilty verdict

  • It has been more than 30 years now since 96 Liverpool fans went to a football game at Hillsborough Stadium and did not come home.

  • David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge of the game that day, was found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence.

  • A Crown Prosecution Service spokesman made clear, it did not change the fact that the victims of Hillsborough were unlawfully killed.

Manchester: It has been more than 30 years now since 96 Liverpool fans went to a football game and did not come home. For 30 years, their families have struggled not only to deal with the pain and anguish of loss but to find out why their parents, their siblings, their children died that day — how the Hillsborough disaster was allowed to happen at all.

 Hillsborough tragedy: Families of 96 victims again left grappling for answers after not-guilty verdict

File image of David Duckenfield, who was the match commander during the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. REUTERS

They fought to overturn the myth that Liverpool’s fans themselves were responsible. They fought to erase the initial coroner’s verdict of “accidental death,” as if 96 people being killed were just one of those things. They fought to establish an independent inquiry into the events of 15 April, 1989, and to bring about a fresh inquest into the disaster.

They fought and won. When the inquiry reported its findings in 2012, it led to an apology in Parliament from Prime Minister David Cameron for the “double injustice” the families had suffered: both the “injustice of the appalling events” and “the injustice of the denigration of the deceased.”

The inquest, when it published its report in 2016, recorded that the 96 who died that day had been unlawfully killed. At last, the families were getting their answers.

They had hoped that the trial of David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge of the game that day, would provide the final one: confirmation of who was responsible for the deaths. A previous trial, earlier this year, had ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

On Thursday, at Preston Crown Court, after seven weeks of hearings and more than 13 hours of deliberations, the retrial delivered one: Duckenfield was found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence. It is an answer, but to the families, it only yielded yet another question.

When the verdict was announced, Chrissie Burke — whose father, Henry Burke, was among those killed at Hillsborough Stadium in the crowd crush before an FA Cup match — stood on the public gallery and said, “I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death, because someone is.”

Margaret Aspinall lost her 18-year-old son, James Aspinall, in the disaster. “Ninety-six people were unlawfully killed, and yet not one person is accountable,” said his mother, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. “The question I would like to ask all of you, and people within the system, is: Who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?”

For the families, the fear now is that question will always remain. A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service made clear, after the verdict had been delivered, that it did not affect the findings of the inquiry; it did not change the fact that the victims of Hillsborough had been unlawfully killed. Duckenfield’s defence had rested on the argument that it was “unfair” to make him the “focus of blame” when “there are so many other people at fault, so many causes.”

At Duckenfield’s previous trial, the jury did find Graham Mackrell, the club secretary and safety officer at Sheffield Wednesday, the club that owned Hillsborough, guilty of failing to take reasonable care to protect crowds outside the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, where the disaster occurred.

He was fined 6,500 pounds and ordered to pay costs of 5,000 pounds. The judge in that trial, Sir Peter Openshaw, stressed in sentencing him that he had not been found guilty of causing the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans.

And so now the families must face the reality presented to them by the court: The 96 who died were unlawfully killed, but nobody — most likely — will ever be held responsible for it.

“We have been told we can’t take this anywhere,” said Jenni Hicks, whose teenage daughters, Sarah Hicks and Vikki Hicks, died in the crush. “There is nowhere else to go with it. We have got to live the rest of our lives knowing our loved ones were unlawfully killed and nobody will be accountable for that unlawful killing. That can’t be right.”

The instinct for the families, of course, is to go on fighting. That is what they have always done; it is what they have long since realised they have to do. Aspinall, in an interview with Liverpool FC’s in-house broadcast network, said she believed that “changing the system in this country” so that there is not “one law for one, and one law for others” would be a “beautiful legacy” for those who died.

The significance of the Hillsborough tragedy to British football cannot really be overstated. The official report into the causes of the disaster, published in 1990, brought about fundamental changes in the fabric of the sport: not just in how games were policed and how fans were treated, but to the stadiums in which the games were held.

The Premier League has become the most popular domestic competition in the world, in part because of its backdrop — modern stadiums packed with fans — and its atmosphere: certainly, compared to what came before, more family-friendly, comfortable and safe. An unforeseen consequence of the Taylor Report was to make English football telegenic.

That has proved to be the key to the virtuous circle that has propelled the league to its current status as a global sporting phenomenon, one that draws in controversial Russian oligarchs and oil-rich emirs and ruthless American venture capitalists.

The better the product looks on television, the more fans come to the stadiums — paying ever-higher prices — and the more watch on TV. That sends broadcast revenues spiraling, enabling clubs to pay for better players, who entice yet more fans to the stadiums and yet greater audiences on TV. The legacy of Hillsborough, the changes made to ensure it could not happen again, is not the only factor behind such trends, but it is no exaggeration to say that the Premier League only exists as one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports because of the 96 who died there.

What is perhaps less appreciated is the legacy of Hillsborough on British society — and not just in Liverpool, a city that spent much of the 1980s feeling alienated and ostracised by Margaret Thatcher’s government; it emerged, in 2011, that the government had talked of the city’s “managed decline.”

Liverpool has long moved in a slightly different current than much of the rest of Britain does; that is, in part, a consequence of Hillsborough.

One study found that the city’s high “Remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum might partly be attributed to the long-standing boycott of The Sun newspaper, which was among the outlets that published reports supporting the narrative that the fans themselves were to blame.

But the effect extends beyond the Mersey Basin. In two weeks, Britain goes to the polls for a general election that has been brought about by chronic distrust not just in both major parties but in the country’s institutions as a whole. The suspicion is marked by a willingness on all sides to believe that the system is arrayed against the general public.

It is hard to believe that Hillsborough has not in some way contributed to that atmosphere, alongside the allegations over a campaign of police disinformation at the 1984 Battle of Orgreave — when police clashed with striking miners — and even the revelations over the prolific sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of it has served to erode trust in public bodies — to create the impression, as Aspinall said, in “one law for one, and one law for others”; it has fueled the sense that it is not just the Hillsborough families who are “the others.”

In the case of Hillsborough, it is because of the families’ fight for justice that we know what we do now: that the 96 were not killed because of drunken fans or disorder, that they were not in some way complicit in their own deaths, but that they died because of the failure of the people who were meant to protect them, because of the “mistakes” Duckenfield admitted he made that day to the inquest.

Their appetite to establish the truth forced the curtain to be lifted; their search for justice brought the entire country answers.

“I blame the system that is so morally wrong in this country,” Aspinall said Thursday at a news media conference after Duckenfield’s not-guilty verdict was announced. “If it wasn’t him, who was it? What does that say about the state of this country and the law?”

Even now, even 30 years on, all she is left with — all the families are left with — are questions.

Rory Smith c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Nov 29, 2019 18:41:54 IST