NONE of the 96 Liverpool victims of the Hillsborough disaster should be blamed for their tragic deaths, a coroner has said, which bereaved relatives welcomed as “music to our ears”.
Speaking on the third day of the new inquests in Warrington, Lord Justice Goldring laid out key questions facing jurors looking into how the fans died on April 15, 1989, including how other supporters behaved.
He said: “What was the conduct of the fans or some of them, excluding those who died, and did that play any part in the disaster? I phrase it in that way because I don’t believe anyone will suggest that the conduct of those who died in any way contributed to their deaths. “
Speaking outside court, Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, said: “It’s absolutely great. We’ve always known that for 25 years.
“We’ve had a lot of mud thrown at us for 25 years. It’s nice to hear the coroner say that. To hear that officially from Lord Justice Goldring was really music to our ears.”
Britain’s worst sporting disaster unfolded when hundreds of fans were crushed at the FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool at Sheffield Wednesday’s home ground. The jury heard today that police accounts of what happened that day were changed, with critical comments about police leadership and fans removed.
Officers from South Yorkshire had been asked to write their own accounts of what happened, and then senior ranks and lawyers for the force altered some of the statements before they were passed to West Midlands Police, which was investigating the tragedy.
The coroner said: “Over the years between 1989 and today it has become known that a large number of statements were amended in the review. The amendments vary in type and significance.
“Some simply involve corrections of language and factual error. Others involve removing expletives. A number involved the removal of comments criticising the police leadership on the day of the disaster.
“Others were of deletions of passages denouncing poor and defective radio communications. A small number were amended to remove comments which were critical or even abusive of the fans at the match.”
Lord Justice Goldring said the jury of seven women and four men would have to consider whether the amendments affect their view of the “reliability” of early written statements given by the officers.
He said: “You will have to give some consideration to the amendments which were made to some of the statements.
“Among the questions which you may consider are these. Do the amendments affect your view of the reliability of these early written accounts given by the officers, an account on which he may be heavily reliant after 25 years? Why was the amendment made? Was it made for innocent and perfectly understandable reasons? Or was it part of a policy of blaming fans in order to deflect criticism from police?
“Do the amendments throw any light on the crucial question, how those who came to die did so?”
He outlined the series of inquiries that have already taken place into the disaster, including the previous inquests where the coroner took the “highly controversial” decision that those who died were beyond help after 3.15pm.
More recently, the Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up and issued a final report in 2012. Lord Justice Goldring said: “Any views they expressed are irrelevant as far as you are concerned, what the panel said can’t be evidence for you to consider. You will hear more information than did the panel. The panel heard no evidence, you, of course, will.”
On November 19, 2012 the original inquest verdicts were quashed. The jury, sitting in a court in a specially-fitted office block, was told that two investigations are being carried out into the aftermath of the disaster, one led by police, called Operation Resolve, and one headed by watchdog the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
The coroner said: “The fact that the IPCC is involved should not be taken as an indication that any police officer necessarily did anything wrong.
“The IPCC is the body which carries out investigations into the police. It is for you to reach your determinations in respect of the actions of the police and others on the evidence you hear.”
Coroner Lord Justice Goldring yesterday set out the events that led up to the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans as hundred of the victims’ relatives looked on. The jury were told they could make sure the memory of the victims would be “properly respected” by finding the truth about what happened.
The coroner pointed out specific issues the jury should think about, including whether some supporters could have been saved if they had received medical treatment sooner after escaping the overcrowded Leppings Lane terraces.
He spoke several times of the actions of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, acting as South Yorkshire Police’s match commander for Hillsborough for the first time during the match, an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. He said jurors should consider whether it was “sensible” to have immediately promoted him to the position, replacing his more experienced predecessor Chief Superintendent Brian Mole. He said the officer decided to open the gates into the Leppings Lane end to alleviate the crush outside the ground after one of his officers warned him “someone would be killed” unless action was taken.
He said Mr Duckenfield’s claim to then-chief executive of the Football Association Graham Kelly that one of the three gates into the stand had been forced by fans led to “seriously inaccurate reporting of events” after it was repeated in a radio interview.
The coroner said: “There is no question of Gate C having been forced. You will want to consider why Chief Superintendent Duckenfield said what he did.”
Taking the jury through the events leading up to kick-off as a large crowd started to build up outside the turnstiles, Lord Justice Goldring said “different witnesses view these events from very different perspectives”. He said: “Some officers describe [supporters] as pushing forward with a disregard for the safety of those in front.
“Some say those arriving in the later stages were more aggressive in pushing forward and some put this down to drink. By contrast, many of the fans describe a group of supporters who were keen to get into the match and found themselves in an intolerable crush. You will hear a range of accounts and form your own views; you will also have to consider whether such problems as were found there should have been foreseen by the police and others in their planning for the match.
“When the order was given to open the gates no instruction was given to anybody about managing the crowd which was likely to enter.”
He said the jury would “no doubt” consider the actions of the police officers in the control room in ordering the gates to be opened and whether pens three and four, where the crush occurred, were already crowded.
The court heard fans in the Leppings Lane End became increasingly crushed after the gates were opened. Two gates leading from the terrace onto the pitch were opened as fans tried to escape the crush, but officers in the police control room did not realise why this had happened. The coroner said: “They, as did others, appear to have thought that they were seeing a deliberate pitch invasion by Liverpool fans. You may have to consider how and why they formed that view and did not realise what was going on.”
One of the initial calls by police control to ambulance control said that there was “pushing and shoving” and that “a few ambulances” might be needed, although this was quickly changed to a request for a fleet, which was initially refused.
Ambulance staff also failed to walk through fans who were at the side of the pitch and therefore did not see how many people were “in danger and distress”, the court heard.
Lord Justice Goldring warned jury members to keep an open mind about the evidence during the year-long hearing.