LONDON – Families of 96 Liverpool soccer fans who died in a stadium overcrowding disaster in 1989 slammed a British judge's decision to end the trial of two former police officers and an ex-lawyer on charges of perverting the course of justice.
After four weeks of evidence, Judge William Davis told jurors in Salford, northwest England, that he agreed with lawyers for the defendants that there was no case they could properly consider.
That decision brings to an end the families' 32-year fight for justice for their loved ones who died on April 15, 1989, during the crush at an FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium The deaths initially were ruled accidental — a ruling overturned in 2012 after a new, wide-ranging inquiry.
“We’ve got the death certificate with 96 unlawfully killed but yet not one person has been held to account," Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster, said at the Hillsborough memorial at Liverpool's Anfield stadium.
“To me that’s a disgrace on this nation, on the British system, on the law," she added. "I’m absolutely so devastated today for the hard work that the families have put in for all of these years.”
Donald Denton, an 83-year-old retired chief superintendent at South Yorkshire Police, former detective chief inspector Alan Foster, 74, and former solicitor Peter Metcalf, 71, had each been charged with acting to pervert the course of justice. They were accused of amending police officers’ statements after the disaster in an attempt to minimize the blame that would be heaped on the police force after a crush of fans inside two standing-room-only areas of the stadium led to the deaths and to hundreds of injuries.
But the judge said the amended statements were intended for a subsequent public inquiry into sporting event safety that was not a “course of public justice” and therefore could not be perverted.
“Whatever the anxiety and distress, I have to determine whether there is evidence to support the particular criminal offense with which these defendants have been charged,” David said. “In concluding that there is not, that is all I do.”
Lawyers acting on behalf of the defendants expressed their sympathy to the families of the people who died but criticized the Crown Prosecution Service for pursuing the case.
“There are serious questions to be asked about how at least 70 million pounds ($100 million) of public money could be spent on an investigation which uncovered no evidence of criminal conduct of any kind, but which somehow took so long to come to the conclusion in a court of law," said Mike Renton, Denton's lawyer.
Sue Hemming, the director of legal services at the Crown Prosecution Service, said it was “right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.”
Liverpool Football Club also voiced its disappointment at the latest failure to bring someone to account for what happened 32 years ago, and said the victims had been “let down yet again."
“While it would not be our place, legally or otherwise, to comment on those proceedings as they pertain to individuals, it is incumbent on us to forcefully point out that the 96 victims, their families, survivors and all those who suffered as a result of the Hillsborough tragedy have continuously been failed in their pursuit for justice," it said on its website.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who has been heavily involved in the campaign for justice for Hillsborough victims, slammed the court decision a “disgrace and so disrespectful to the families.”
“Why was it not left to the jury to decide? From what I have witnessed first-hand over the last four years, I can only conclude that the scales of justice in this country are weighed heavily against ordinary people,” Burnham said.
That viewpoint was echoed by many of the bereaved families.
“I would have liked to have seen it through to the end and for the jury to make their minds up on this, not for the judge to instruct them,” said Jenni Hicks, whose daughters Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, died in the disaster.