Hillsborough disaster inquests halted as jury prepares to retire

THE Hillsborough inquests were abruptly adjourned this afternoon and will now resume tomorrow morning.

Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield (front) is escorted in to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington last March

On day 307 of the hearings the coroner Sir John Goldring had been expected to conclude his summing up and the jury to retire to consider their verdicts this afternoon.

But following the lunch break Sir John told the court an issue with a juror meant the hearing would not continue this afternoon.

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The coroner said he was “hopeful” the court will resume tomorrow morning. No further details were given.

Sir John has been summing up the case since January and the hearings, which began in March 2014, have now spanned across three years.

The seven women and three men of the jury must consider 14 key questions set out by the coroner in a 33 page questionnaire, inquiring into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

The questions include deciding 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.

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

Sir John has told the jury they will 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 will 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.”

Earlier today the coroner took the jury again through the 33 page questionnaire covering the 14 questions they must answer, detailing legal directions and suggestions of matters they may wish to consider to help answer the questions.

The coroner made some extra comments on two of the key questions: question six, whether the 96 fans were unlawfully killed and whether former chief superintendent David Duckenfield is responsible for their manslaughter by gross negligence; and question seven, asking about whether the behaviour of supporters played a part in the disaster and whether such behaviour was “unusual or unforeseeable”.

The coroner phrased the question on the fans by asking jurors to consider if it was the case that fans behaved “normally and reasonably” and the dangerous overcrowding at the turnstiles before kick-off was a result of “insufficient turnstiles and the failure of police organisation”.

Or was it, he continued, that some fans behaved in an unruly or obstructive way that made a “significant contribution” to the dangerous situation developing?

Sir John told the jury the audio-visual (AV) material, video footage, “may help you considerably”.

He added that it was suggested to many witnesses that footage taken on the day actually did not show any unruly behaviour by the fans or heavy drinking, as was suggested by some police officers.

Sir John added that nobody had suggested there was anything wrong or unreasonable about waiting outside the entrance of a turnstile to see a football match or having a drink before a football match or for fans to have gone through exit gates once opened by police.

He continued: “As I have said repeatedly, nobody has suggested there was any hooligan behaviour that contributed to the disaster and there is no coherent evidence of any supporters conspiring to force entry to the ground.

“There is no evidence from the AV material (video footage) to suggest any misbehaviour by anyone who died or anyone who gave evidence.

“Nobody suggests that any of them contributed to the disaster.”

He told the jury question six asks them to decide whether the 96 fans were unlawfully killed.

He continued: “In order to answer yes, you would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the match commander, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence of those 96 people.”

Sir John said they would need to be sure that Mr Duckenfield had breached his duty of care to the fans, that this caused the deaths and that this breach was so bad it amounted to a criminal act or omission.

The hearing will resume tomorrow morning.