Yesterday one of the British dailies commented in the wake of Thursday's verdict at Preston Crown Court in the case of David Duckenfield, the Hillsborough stadium match commander on the day 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives:
£60m, five separate jury court cases, thirty years and still NO ONE is found responsible for unlawful killing of 96 football fans at Hillsborough.
Unlawfully killed they were. The much belated 2016 Inquest into their deaths delivered such a verdict. It is a legal fact. Yet no member of the South Yorkshire Police, the body that bears most blame has ever been legally found to be criminally culpable. The status quo ante whereby all cops are legally innocent remains after Thursday’s acquittal of Duckenfield.
On hearing the verdict, I snarled to my wife, "That rotten bastard got off, he killed the fans and beat the rap." If I felt angry, what the families were experienceing is many times amplified. Institutionally guilty but individually innocent, the seeming legal conundrum thrust into the faces of the relatives of those whose lives were crushed. if there is any sense behind the Preston Crown Court verdict exonerating Duckenfield on a charge of gross negligence manslaughter the families will be baffled as to what exactly it is.
Christine Burke, whose father, Henry Burke, lost his life in the tragedy, addressed the judge from the public gallery.
With all due respect, my lord, 96 people were found unlawfully killed to a criminal standard … I would like to know who is responsible for my father's death because someone is.
This was later finetuned by Margaret Aspinall who lost her 18 year old son James in the crush, at the post-verdict press conference:
How can 96 people be unlawfully killed but no-one be responsible? I blame a system that's so morally wrong within this country, that's a disgrace to this nation.
Duckenfield declined to testify on the grounds that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, so it was up to his defence barrister to take up the slack, claiming that:
David Duckenfield did do what he was expected to do as match commander. He didn't breach his duty, he did what he was expected to do in difficult circumstances.
Tripe talk. By Duckenfield’s own admission at the inquest he should have ordered the tunnel to the central pens at the Leppings Lane end of the ground closed once he had ordered the opening of the exit gates. It is a basic common sense procedure, much like a pilot closing the doors of his plane prior to take off. Not closing the tunnel was not doing what was expected of him.
By failing to act in the proper manner Duckenfield was in clear breach of what he should have done. There was no intent to kill but a clear and negligent dereliction of duty. There was a callousness too. He admitted at the Inquest that at 3:04 on the 15th April 1989 he was aware that medical emergency existed yet sent in the dogs rather than ambulances to deal with it. A callousness that continued throughout the trial where he hummed during evidence, conjuring up in mind at least an image of Joaquin Phoenix as the callous emperor in Gladiator, humming in the face of the misery sprawled across his field of vision.
On the 15th of April 1989, both as the police crime against Liverpool FC supporters was unfolding, and in its immediate aftermath, Duckenfield began “practising and persisted in a far-reaching deceit”. Those are the words used by himself at the 2016 inquest to describe his actions.
Trial by Jury has delivered the result and legally Duckenfield is innocent. Jailing him would have served little purpose if any, but convicting him very much would have had a cathartic effect on those whose loved ones were crushed. Steve Kelly who lost his brother Mike indicated why:
Duckenfield was the man, everyone turned to him for direction and he was nowhere to be seen. The people around him required guidance. He sought to find scapegoats for his own dithering. We are forever cheated. God bless the 96.
Duckenfield had become the personification of what had gone wrong at Hillsborough. For the families it was important that his guilt be written into the record. They have got truth but no accountability, "Stitched up again", the words used by Mary Corrigan, the mother of the late 17 year old Keith McGrath. Disappointed and distraught as they are, they should not allow the Duckenfield acquittal to take away from their much more substantive achievements. Although psychologically hurt, their real victory came through two events, the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report and the subsequent inquest. South Yorkshire police unlawfully killed their husbands, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers.
These have rendered Duckenfield’s acquittal a pyrrhic victory. The match commander of the force that unlawfully killed 96 people at the match was found not guilty of unlawfully killing 96 people. Go figure. His attempt to have footage of soccer fan violence with absolutely no connection to Liverpool supporters or the match in question played during the trial shamefully exposed his expressed remorse as shallow and self serving.
That's why the words of Kenny Dalglish should resonate widely, "hugely disappointed but immensely proud.
Proud of the 96, proud of their families, proud of the wider body of fans, but most of all proud of one particular category, as poignantly articulated by Brian Reade in 2013: "Kicked to hell and back, the Hillsborough mothers refused to let their lost children down."