Liverpool football fans who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed, a jury ruled this week.
The decision represents an enormous victory for survivors and families who have fought for justice for 27 years. And it means a serious crisis for South Yorkshire Police.
Some 96 fans died due to a crush at the Sheffield stadium in 1989. Fresh inquests into their deaths have now completely vindicated Liverpool fans.
The jury found that the match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, breached a duty of care to the fans. They found that this breach caused the deaths and that it amounted to “gross negligence”.
Relatives of the dead and survivors cheered in the public gallery as the decision was announced.
There were claps as the jury said that fans’ behaviour did not cause or contribute to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles.
When asked if fans’ behaviour may have caused or contributed, the jury also answered no.
The decisions follow 27 years of police lies that tried to paint fans as drunken hooligans. Relatives held one banner outside the court that simply read, “We told you they lied.”
Some relatives and survivors did not live to see justice done. And the inquests were longer than they needed to be because of the police.
Lawyers representing 22 families said, “The real reason these proceedings have taken twice as long as their original estimates is because the police and ambulance services and ex-senior police officers have sought to deny responsibility and deflect blame.”
The jury answered 14 questions relating to the disaster. The jury answered yes to every question regarding police failings.
Margaret Aspinall’s son James died due to the disaster aged just 18. Margaret said outside the court, “To get a clean sweep—14-0. Nothing can beat it.
“It wasn’t just about the 96 who died. This was about all of the families, the fans, the survivors. This was clearing their name as well. We’ve done it and we’ve won it.”
Pete Weatherby QC, representing 22 of the families, said the disaster was “a catastrophic policing failure of South Yorkshire Police (SYP).”
Anne Burkett’s son Peter died in the disaster. She said, “What followed massively increased the distress and grief. A police cover-up of industrial proportions.
“To the great shame of SYP they sought to hide the truth. Now is the time for consequences.”
Sheila Coleman from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign told Socialist Worker, “The victims of the Hillsborough disaster go beyond the 96 who were tragically killed.
“They include thousands of survivors and the families of those who died and who survived.
“Hillsborough shows how the establishment will always organise to protect its own.
“Bereaved family members and survivors have not only suffered trauma, but they have suffered the hurt and injustice of state lies.
“Individual police officers on the day of the disaster were part of an organisation. That organisation should be held to account.”
Jury finds police action lay at the heart of the disaster
There were “major omissions” in police planning and preparation for the match. The omissions included specific instructions for managing the crowd at the Leppings Lane turnstiles and for monitoring the pens.
There were errors or omissions in policing on the day that contributed to a dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles.
The jury said, “Police response to the increasing crowds at Leppings Lane was slow and uncoordinated.”
Police did not use filter cordons and there was no contingency plan for dealing with the crowd.
Commanding officers made errors or omissions that caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace. The jury said, “Commanding officers should have ordered the closure of the central tunnel before the opening of gate C was requested as pens three and four were full.”
They said commanding officers failed to recognise that pens were full. Commanding officers in the police control box made errors or omissions that caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace. Features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium caused or contributed to the disaster. Safety requirements were not met.
Sheffield Wednesday Football Club “did not approve the plans for dedicated turnstiles to each pen”. The jury ruled that this caused or contributed to the dangerous situation on the day.
The club’s safety certificate was not amended to reflect changes at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. Capacity figures were incorrect. The jury ruled that this contributed to the disaster.
Ambulance officers failed to comprehend the scale of the problem and delayed declaring a major incident. This led to delays in response to the emergency.
The jury also found that there may have been errors or omissions by Sheffield Wednesday club staff that caused or contributed to the dangerous situation. Jurors said club officials “should have requested a delayed kick off”.
The ground’s engineers should have done more to advise on unsafe aspects of the stadium.
Police actions once the crush had begun caused or contributed to fans’ deaths. Police delayed calling a major incident. And there was a lack of communication, coordination, command and control.
‘The law is one thing, getting justice is something else’
Becky Shah was a teenager when her mother, Inger Shah, died after being caught in the crush. Becky told the inquests, “The continuing need to defend my mother’s good name for a quarter of a century has been overwhelming.
"My mum was neither a drunken hooligan nor a bad mother.”
Becky told Socialist Worker, “Nothing that came out of the inquests in terms of what the police did was a surprise or a revelation to me.
“In terms of smearing fans, there was nothing that was shocking to me. I knew that in 1989.”
Off-duty firefighter Tony O’Keefe was at the match as a spectator and went onto the pitch to try and help the injured. He told Socialist Worker, “Fans were picking people up on hoardings and helping to carry people. But because of what was printed in the papers about fans, it stuck.
“I had someone saying to me, ‘You all crushed each other’. That’s the kind of thing you were up against.”
Stephen Wright’s 17 year old brother Graham died in the crush. Stephen was also at the match. He told Socialist Worker, “The police knew the stadium well. I could see the two pens were chocker and the side pens were empty.
“And they had all the screens. But they lost control.”
Original inquests into the deaths in 1991 delivered a verdict of accidental death. It has taken years of campaigning by families, survivors and others to get that overturned and win fresh inquests.
Sheila Coleman from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign told Socialist Worker, “Most of the bereaved families and survivors weren’t political. They had little or no experience of challenging officialdom. But the sustained Hillsborough campaign for justice forced the establishment to admit a conspiracy and a cover-up.
“We should never underestimate that. If other people and campaigns have been inspired by us, then we have changed things for the better.
“We will keep fighting for justice. The law is one thing but justice is something else.”
Time of deaths finally agreed
The jury found that compression asphyxia, or its effects, was the cause of death for most of the 96 fans. For John Alfred Anderson the cause was traumatic rupture of the abdominal aorta.
Tony Bland survived for nearly four years after suffering brain damage due to or as a consequence of compression asphyxia. He died on 3 March 1993. Lee Nicol died on 17 April 1989, two days after the disaster. Jurors gave varying times of death for fans who died on the day of the disaster, ranging between 2.57pm and 4.50pm. For some fans the time of death was more specific.
The jury found that Jon-Paul Gilhooley, the youngest victim of the disaster who died aged ten, died at 3.50pm. Jurors found that Adam Spearritt died between 4.45pm and 4.50pm. They said that Gary Jones died at 4.20pm.
The findings are significant. The original inquests in 1991 did not look at any evidence after 3.15pm on the day of the disaster. Then the coroner said that those who died would have been beyond saving after that point.
Evidence said some could have survived.
Vindicated—but still fighting
Families of the dead reacted with joy to the inquests’ decisions—but also said the fight is not over. Stephen Wright lost his brother Graham in the disaster.
Stephen told Socialist Worker, “It’s a complete vindication of the fight we’ve had for all these years.
“It’s amazing. I’ve always believed the fans were unlawfully killed. And it’s a great relief to me that the jury said fans did not play any part.
“But police in this country don’t go to prison for killing innocent people do they? So the fight to get justice for the 96 will continue.”