Members of the Jury by Angela Caldin
Yesterday, 26 April 2016, was a historic day for football, for justice and for some kind of peace for the many families who have been campaigning and suffering for 27 years. The jury in the inquest into the 96 deaths at the Hillsborough Stadium disaster returned a majority verdict (seven out of nine) of unlawful killing.
That jury, composed of six women and three men, heard evidence over a period of two years. It must have been extremely difficult to find people who were able to devote that length of time and who were not prejudiced about the event in any way. The hearings have been held at a specially built courtroom in Warrington, where those jurors turned up day after day to hear evidence both harrowing and deeply troubling.
They began their deliberations on April 6 and finished on April 25, answering a total of 14 questions about the Hillsborough disaster. In order to reach a verdict of unlawful killing, jurors had to conclude that the police commander at the match, David Duckenfield, owed a duty of care to those who died in the disaster and that he was in breach of that duty. Most importantly, the jury found that the behaviour of the football fans did not cause or contribute to the dangerous situation.
27 Years of Confusion and Cover-up
The disaster happened on April 15, 1989, during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The first official inquiry into the tragedy in 1990, the Taylor Report, found that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control”. The report prompted major changes in safety standards at stadiums in Britain, with perimeter fencing removed and many grounds converted to all-seater stadiums with no standing terraces. However, that inquiry did not completely rule out fan behaviour as a factor. It concluded that “an unruly minority who had drunk too much aggravated the problem”.
The original inquest in March 1991 recorded verdicts of accidental death, which stood until 2012 when they were quashed. Decades later, Duckenfield admitted that he had not been entirely honest when he gave evidence during the original inquest. When he gave evidence at the latest inquest, Duckenfield said he was “not the best man for the job” and that he had only “basic knowledge” of the stadium. Evidence also emerged of police statements being altered to favour police actions on the day and to blame the behaviour of fans.
The Jury’s Findings
The jury found that the 96 people at Hillsborough Stadium died “as a result of crushing in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace, following the admission of a large number of supporters to the stadium through exit gates” and that there had been errors or omissions in police planning and preparation as well as in policing on the day of the match. They concluded that police and ambulance services committed errors which “contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster.” They said that Sheffield Wednesday FC and its staff were also partly to blame for the tragedy and found that there had been errors or omissions in the safety certification and oversight of Hillsborough stadium and that “features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium” caused or contributed to the situation. Lastly, they found that the club’s consultant engineers, Eastwood & Partners, could have done more to “detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of Hillsborough stadium.”
The Jury System
All these findings were made by ordinary men and women like you and me, prompting me to think how much we take for granted our system of justice which entrusts such far-reaching decisions to members of the public without any special training or qualifications. We trust that jurors, in spite of their own views and prejudices, will review and discuss the evidence to the best of their ability and reach a verdict on what they have heard. The jury in the Hillsborough inquest were cheered and applauded yesterday by the relatives of the 96 victims and praised by the coroner, Sir John Goldring, who said:
“You have devoted over two years of your lives to this inquest. Your commitment and dedication has been remarkable, as anyone here present every day could testify.
I suspect I speak for most when I say how hugely impressed I have been. Sitting on a jury for the shortest case is an act of public duty of great importance. Sitting on one for this length of time is public service of the highest order.
It is very important that decisions on matters like the Hillsborough disaster are taken not by lawyers but by members of the public like you. I thank you very much indeed. I excuse you from sitting on a jury for the rest of your lives.”