6 People Will Be Charged in 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster
LONDON — British prosecutors said on Wednesday that they would file criminal charges against six people in the deaths of 96 soccer fans at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England, in 1989. The catastrophe transformed how the sport is viewed in the country, and the decision is a vindication for friends and families of the victims.
In April 2016, a jury found that the fans, who were crushed or trampled to death, had been “unlawfully killed” and cited lethal police errors, but it left open the question of whether criminal charges would be filed.
The jury answered yes to the crucial questions of whether there were errors or omissions by the police in planning and executing security for the match on April 15, 1989, and it specifically cited the actions of commanding officers.
The Crown Prosecution Service announced on Wednesday that David Duckenfield, a former police officer who was the South Yorkshire match commander on the day of the tragedy, would face manslaughter charges.
Five other men will also face criminal charges: Graham Henry Mackrell, a former Sheffield Wednesday secretary; Peter Metcalf, a lawyer who represented the South Yorkshire Police; and three former police officers: Donald Denton, Alan Foster, Norman Bettison.
Sue Hemming, the head of the prosecution service’s special crime and counterterrorism division, announced the charges after meeting with victims’ families on Wednesday morning.
“Criminal proceedings have now commenced and the defendants have a right to a fair trial,” she said. “ It is extremely important that there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.”
The victims suffocated at an F.A. Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest after the police opened an exit gate in an effort to relieve congestion outside the stadium before the game. In the chaos that ensued, some victims were crushed against steel fencing. Others were trampled, and more than 700 people were injured. The victims were ages 10 to 67 and included 37 teenagers.
After the disaster, some senior law enforcement officials and members of the news media initially pointed fingers at the victims for abetting their own deaths, saying they had been drunk and unruly.
But the jury — following a two-year inquest that began on April 1, 2014 — found that the fans were not responsible for their deaths and instead identified lethal police errors. The trial was not a criminal trial but, rather, a finding of fact that did not confer civil damages or penalties. It was left to prosecutors to evaluate whether to press criminal charges.
The tragedy changed how soccer is watched: Standing-only sections at stadiums that were vulnerable to overcrowding have been replaced by seating areas at most venues in Britain, and fences around the field were removed.
The case, which has raised issues of class, institutional accountability and justice, has shone a spotlight on the failure of law enforcement to properly police the game. Among those under scrutiny has been Mr. Duckenfield, the South Yorkshire police officer, who later falsely claimed that spectators had opened the gate.
During an inquest into the tragedy, Mr. Duckenfield said he “froze” during the crucial moments when police officers were confronted with the threat of overcrowding and he did not anticipate that his failure to close a tunnel leading to crowded pens after a large exit gate was opened would prove deadly.
In the days after the 1989 disaster, The Sun published a story blaming Liverpool fans for belligerent behavior, saying they had attacked the authorities and even picked victims’ pockets. The Sun’s editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, apologized more than 23 years later, but to this day The Sun is reviled by many people in and around Liverpool.
In 1996, Bernard Ingham, a former spokesman for Margaret Thatcher, who was in power at the time of Hillsborough, wrote a letter to Graham Skinner, a Liverpool fan whose friend had died in the crush, in which he blamed fans for their own deaths.
“I believe that there would have been no Hillsborough disaster if tanked-up yobs had not turned up in very large numbers to try to force their way into the ground,” he wrote.