Was it manslaughter? After two years of evidence, Hillsborough jury retires to consider verdicts

Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield (front) is escorted in to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington last March
Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield (front) is escorted in to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington last March
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The jury in the inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster has retired to consider its verdicts, more than two years since the hearings began.

The seven women and three men of the jury retired at 2.05pm to consider 14 key questions set out by the Coroner Sir John Goldring, in a 33 page questionnaire, including determining if match commander David Duckenfield is responsible for the unlawful killing of the fans by gross negligence manslaughter.

The hearings into Britain’s worst sporting disaster first began on March 31 2014, at a specially built courtroom in Warrington, Cheshire, with dozens of relatives of the 96 attending each of the more than 300 days the court has sat at Bridgewater Place at the town’s Birchwood Park business park.

As the Match Commander Mr Duckenfield had the lives of tens of thousands of supporters in his hands at Britain’s worst sporting disaster.

And during six days of close questioning he proffered unreserved apologies for his part, but not unreserved culpability.

He maintains his series of admitted failures were not the only contributory factors to the disaster.

He told jurors he was “not the best man for the job” with severely limited experience of planning and policing football matches.

His promotion to chief superintendent came “out of the blue” after his experienced predecessor Brian Mole was shunted sideways.

But he took over with just 15 days to familiarise himself with the role and agreed later that was a “serious mistake”.

As the Match Commander, he read and signed off the Operational Order, the overall police plan for the match, inherited from Mr Mole.

But the plan was described as deeply flawed and “hopeless” including a reduction of 177 officers on previous semi-finals.

On the stadium itself his knowledge was “basic”.

He was not aware of earlier police concerns about the “bottleneck” layout of Leppings Lane, or about previous crushing injuries to fans in 1981.

He said “in hindsight” he should have spent more time there before the game.

Only on the morning of the match did he learn police had a “find your own level” for fans on the terraces, rather than fill pens sequentially.

But he did not accept it amounted to police “abdicating their responsibility” for the safe populating of the terraces.

Mr Duckenfield said many people were party to the disaster and he was “apologising for my part”.

On day 308 of the inquest hearings, now stretching across three years, the Coroner concluded his summing-up of the evidence which he first began in January, before making his final remarks to the jury before it retired.

Across the courtroom dozens of relatives of the 96 listened in silence.

He told the jurors: “While I’m not inviting you to do so, if you want to be reminded of any piece of evidence you need only send a note to that effect.

“I want to thank you for the care with which I could see you listened to the summing-up and many of you, very diligently, have taken notes.”

He warned them again not to discuss the case unless they were all together as a jury, not to talk about it with anyone else, not to say anything about it on social media and not to seek out anything about it on the internet or elsewhere.

In his closing remarks, Sir John reminded the jurors how they should approach the evidence they had seen and heard.

He said: “You decide the case only on the evidence you heard in court.

“Put out of your mind anything you may have read, heard or discussed about the disaster.

“Decide the case dispassionately on the evidence.

“Put emotion to one side. Do not make critical findings unless the facts justify them.

“On the other hand, do not shrink from making such findings if they do.

“You decide what evidence you accept and what evidence you reject.”

The Hillsborough 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.

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.

At the start of the inquests, the coroner said none of the victims should be blamed for their deaths.

Emotional tributes to each of the 96 were then delivered by family members in the form of personal portraits.

Jurors have heard months of evidence from more than 800 witnesses on topics including stadium safety, match planning, the events of the day, the emergency response and evidence gathering by police after the disaster.

The role and responsibility of Mr Duckenfield also came under intense scrutiny.

The jury was then told of the final movements of each victim before hearing from medical experts and pathologists as to the circumstances of the deaths.

The 1991 verdicts from the original inquests were quashed following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

Sir John told the jurors they would have to resolve “conflicts” of evidence they have heard between what Liverpool fans said and the accounts of police officers critical of them.

The coroner also told them they would have to consider the way police statements were taken, reviewed and sometimes amended in what families claim was an attempt to mould the evidence and protect the South Yorkshire force.

As he summed up the evidence, Sir John reminded the jury: “As you will recall, it was suggested to many witnesses that senior officers collectively sought to present a ‘false narrative’ of the disaster. The senior officers from whom we heard strongly denied that suggestion.

“You will need to consider this evidence because, if you were to take the view there was some deliberate decision, you might think it reflected a view of the facts of the disaster taken by the senior officers. That, of course, is a matter for you.”