Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield is facing “bitterly unfair” blame for the disaster that left 96 football fans dead, his retrial has heard.
Bad planning, stadium design, crowd behaviour, police behaviour, individual mistakes and genuine human error all played a part in the tragedy, Benjamin Myers QC, defending 75-year-old Duckenfield, told the jury as he made an opening speech on behalf of the defence.
The defendant, a Chief Superintendent with South Yorkshire Police and the match commander with responsibility for policing the game, denies the manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 Liverpool supporters who died in the crush at the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground on April 15 1989.
Around a dozen relatives of the victims of the disaster sat in the public gallery at Preston Crown Court watching proceedings.
Mr Myers said the fans who died were “at the heart” of the case.
He added: “The emotions stirred by this tragedy were powerful. How could they not be? In no way do we seek to insult Liverpool Football Club or its supporters or the city of Liverpool itself.
"While heartfelt sympathy for those who suffered is natural, it is human, it must never be a reason to convict someone for events beyond his control or responsibility.
“It is blatantly unfair to blame one person when so many other people and so many other factors contributed to this tragedy.”
Mr Myers told the jury the prosecution were confusing the defendant’s responsibility as the match commander and criminal responsibility for what went wrong.
He said Duckenfield was only made match commander 19 days before the game, after being appointed as chief superintendent for F Division of South Yorkshire Police where the stadium was situated.
But he had never been match commander at a football game before, let alone for a 50,000-capacity cup semi-final, and was “not the ideal man” for the job but “just got on with it”, as that was how South Yorkshire Police operated, Mr Myers said.
Jurors have heard all the 24,000 Liverpool fans were directed to the Leppings Lane end of the ground, where limited turnstiles made a bottleneck of a very large crowd before the 3pm kick-off.
The court has heard Duckenfield acceded to requests to open an exit gate to the stadium after crushing built up outside the turnstiles before the match.
Once through exit gate C, spectators saw a tunnel marked “Standing” which led to the central pens on the terrace where the fatal crush happened.
Mr Myers showed the jury Hillsborough Stadium’s safety certificate, which showed a 7,200 crowd capacity for the West Terrace at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, where fans were crushed to death.
He said the true safe capacity was 5,426 – around 1,800 or 25 per cent overestimated – but nobody, including Mr Duckenfield, realised it at the time.
“If the central pens were already too full when David Duckenfield gave the order to open the gates, why did no one else appreciate they were too full?” Mr Myers said.
“He’s expected to see a problem nobody did.”
Police manpower had also been cut by 15 per cent from the semi-final at the same ground between the same two teams the year before, the court was told.
The trial continues.