Families of Hillsborough victims declared ‘the judiciary is broken’ after two police officers and their force’s lawyer were cleared of perverting the course of justice over the Hillsborough tragedy – despite the judge accepting they did alter statements.
Retired South Yorkshire Police officers Donald Denton, 83, and Alan Foster, 74, and the force’s former solicitor Peter Metcalf, 71, were acquitted today.
After four weeks of evidence, lawyers for three had applied to have the case against them dismissed.
The three men were each accused of two counts of doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice and it was alleged they were involved in a process of amending officers’ statements to minimise the blame on South Yorkshire Police following the disaster at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.
In a ruling handed down at the Nightingale court at the Lowry Theatre in Salford today, judge Mr Justice William Davis accepted the statements had been changed.
But he added that because it was for a public enquiry – not a legal court case – their alterations had not thwarted justice.
Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall and Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, outside Anfield stadium after the trial collapsed today
Margaret Aspinall, with Andy Burnham (right), Mayor of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotheram (left), Mayor of Liverpool City Region, outside Anfield Stadium
Speaking at the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield, campaigner Margaret Aspinall, whose son James, 18, died in the disaster, said: ‘What a very sad day today is for the justice system of this country.
‘Thirty-two years the families have been fighting to get some truth and accountability for the 96 innocent victims who lost their lives at Hillsborough.
‘We’ve got the death certificate with 96 unlawfully killed but yet not one person has been held to account.
‘To me that’s a disgrace on this nation, on the British system, on the law.
‘Things have got to be changed in this country.
Jenny Hicks (second left) and Christine Burke (far right), relatives of victims of the Hilsborough disaster speak to the media outside the Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester
‘I’m absolutely so devastated today for the hard work that the families have put in for all of these years.
‘Today I just felt that trial, on them three, was a cover-up over a cover-up.
‘I am so angry. Until we can do something to change the system in this country to make it a level playing field then unfortunately ordinary people will never get anywhere with the system that we’ve got.’
Speaking in court before the jury came in, Christine Burke, whose father Henry died in the disaster, said: ‘The judiciary is broken.’
Mr Justice William Davis ruled on the case
She said her father had been buried ‘with a lie’, adding ‘The law needs to change.’
Jenni Hicks, whose daughters Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, died in the disaster, said: ‘Something’s got to change.’
She added: ‘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.’
Deanna Matthews, niece of victim Brian Matthews, said: ‘We can understand it based on the law but that is because the law is wrong.
‘The law is designed, it’s drafted, it’s interpreted in a way that allows people to get off on a technicality.’
She said the law was ‘not fit for purpose’ and needed to change.
Then came a loaded statement from the CPS admitted: ‘What has been heard here in this court will have been surprising to many. That a publicly funded authority can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry charged with finding out why 96 people died at a football match, in order to ensure that it never happened again – or that a solicitor can advise such a withholding, without sanction of any sort, may be a matter which should be subject to scrutiny.’
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who has been heavily involved in the campaign for justice for Hillsborough victims, tweeted: ‘This is a disgrace and so disrespectful to the families.
Retired police officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster and solicitor Peter Metcalf, who acted for South Yorkshire Police following the Hillsborough disaster
Former lawyer Peter Metcalf, 71, outside the Lowry Theatre in Salford for the opening of their trial
Retired chief superintendent Donald Denton, 83, (left) and retired detective chief inspector Alan Foster, 74, (right) leaving the Lowry theatre today after the judge’s ruling
‘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.’
He added: ‘To have a case of this magnitude ruled out on a technicality beggars belief. This country needs the Hillsborough Law – and it needs it NOW.’
Mr Justice Davis said there was no case fit for consideration by the jury based on any of the six counts on the indictment.
In the ruling, he said: ‘I repeat my observation about the anxiety and distress being felt by the families of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster.
‘These proceedings have been very drawn-out following a lengthy trial process involving the match commander.
‘I know the strength of feeling there was after his acquittal. I am aware that these proceedings also have been observed with interest.
The West Terrace of Hillsborough stadium at 2.54pm, which was shown to members of the jury
Police officers and Liverpool FC supporters at Leppings Lane at Hillsborough stadium
The Nightingale court at the Lowry Theatre where the case had been heard for four weeks
Lawyers of cleared trio claim CPS ‘witch-hunt’
Lawyers for former South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent Donald Denton, 83, retired detective chief inspector Alan Foster, 74, and Peter Metcalf, 71, questioned the amount of public money spent on the case and said the end of the trial would bring an end to allegations of a cover up.
Mike Rainford, solicitor for Mr Denton, said: ‘The Hillsborough stadium disaster was one of the darkest days in recent British history.
‘The pain and suffering of the injured and the families of the deceased is unimaginable and we express our deepest sympathy for everything they have endured.
‘However, the trial which came to an end just now with not guilty verdicts for all defendants should never have taken place at all.
‘Three men, including our 83-year-old client, have finally been cleared after years of lies, half-truths, myths, rumours, often repeated in the media, with no critical analysis or research.
‘Sadly the IOPC (Independent Office for Police Conduct) and the CPS failed in their duties to apply a higher standard of analysis of the evidence in making the decision to bring these charges over three years ago.
‘There are serious questions to be asked about how at least £70 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.’
Paul Harris, solicitor for Mr Foster, said: ‘The sympathy today remains and always has with the families of those who lost their lives on April 15 1989.
‘Such sympathy, though, cannot be extended to the IPCC, now the IOPC, who pursued a man, now aged 75, with weak evidence designed to fit a pre-determined narrative.
‘This narrative of an alleged cover-up, when every document was meticulously preserved and maintained, was not borne out by the evidence.’
He said it was unfortunate Mr Foster’s wife Patricia, who died last year, did not live to see her husband of 50 years acquitted but added ‘she always knew that he was innocent’.
Mr Harris added: ‘This case, at the hands of the IOPC and CPS, has been a shameful waste of public resources at a time when money can not and should not be wasted.’
And Jonathan Goldberg QC, who represented Mr Metcalf, said his client was ‘doing his job’ in 1989 and had been acting on the advice of a QC.
He said: ‘Hillsborough is probably one of the most investigated disasters in British history. That money would have been better spent on building new hospitals or schools, perhaps in Liverpool.
‘However, whatever the anxiety and distress, I have to determine whether there is evidence to support the particular criminal offence with which these defendants have been charged.
‘In concluding that there is not, that is all I do.’
The trial had heard statements were amended to remove criticism of the force.
But expert witness Sir Robert Francis QC told the jury there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.
Mr Denton, Mr Metcalf and Mr Foster were charged in 2017 following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into allegations of a cover-up by police following the tragedy.
Sir Norman Bettison, a chief inspector in 1989 who went on to become chief constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire, was charged with misconduct in a public office as part of the investigation but the charges against were dropped in August 2018.
The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in 2017 but he was cleared in 2019 at a retrial, after the jury in his first trial was unable to reach a verdict.
In May 2019, former Sheffield Wednesday club secretary Graham Mackrell was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs after he was convicted of failing to ensure the health and safety of fans arriving at the ground on the day of the disaster.
Sue Hemming, CPS Director of Legal Services, said: ‘Words cannot describe the sheer devastation of the Hillsborough disaster and the impact on the family and friends of the 96 who died, and hundreds more who were injured.
‘Previously the Taylor Inquiry, the Popper Inquest, the Stuart Smith Inquiry, a private prosecution, the Hillsborough Independent Panel process, a new inquest and two further criminal trials have all examined what happened at the Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989.
‘The appalling events of that day have also overshadowed the lives of the families and friends of all those who died. They live with their grief to this day.
‘They have faced untrue allegations about the behaviour of Liverpool fans that they were complicit in causing those deaths.
‘The true causes of the disaster have been examined in subsequent proceedings and fan behaviour was firmly eliminated as a cause.
‘They were football fans simply attending a football game to support their team.
‘Their loved ones were unlawfully killed through the negligence of others.
‘Since 2013 we have worked closely with the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) to establish whether there was sufficient evidence to bring prosecutions against a number of individuals for offences committed before the day of the match, on the day of the match or in the aftermath.
‘This is the first time that people have appeared in court for actions following the disaster. It has been a complex case looking at evidence from three decades ago and whether the defendants deliberately changed police statements in order to mislead future inquiries.
The victims of the Hillsborough disaster who died in the football tragedy on April 15, 1989
‘It is crucial that we presented the evidence gathered by the IOPC investigation teams to a court and we have worked tirelessly to prepare the case for the jury to understand this evidence and any implications resulting from the amended statements.
‘After long and incredibly careful consideration, especially for the families involved, we decided not to appeal the ruling. The CPS was right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.
‘What has been heard here in this court will have been surprising to many. That a publicly funded authority can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry charged with finding out why 96 people died at a football match, in order to ensure that it never happened again – or that a solicitor can advise such a withholding, without sanction of any sort, may be a matter which should be subject to scrutiny.
‘Throughout, we have kept in regular contact with bereaved families and I fully appreciate how disappointing this outcome will be for them. As we have done at each stage of our work, we will meet with them again to answer any questions they may have.’
The battle for Hillborough justice
– April 15 1989: Ninety-six football fans are fatally injured in a deadly crush as Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground.
– April 1989: Lord Justice Taylor is appointed to conduct a public inquiry into the disaster, with the West Midlands Police force later instructed to examine the role of its South Yorkshire counterparts.
– August 4 1989: An interim Taylor Report is published into the disaster after the submission of 3,776 written statements of evidence, 1,550 letters, 71 hours of video footage and the oral evidence of 174 witnesses.
– January 1990: The full Taylor Report finds the main reason for the disaster is the failure of police control and the decision to open Gate C without blocking the tunnel to central pens, calling them ‘blunders of the first magnitude’.
– April 18 1990: South Yorkshire coroner Dr Stefan Popper begins the first inquests in Sheffield. A 3.15pm cut-off point is imposed so inquiries into lack of emergency response are ruled inadmissible.
– March 28 1991: After the longest inquest in British history to date, lasting 90 days, a verdict of accidental death is returned by a majority verdict of 9-2.
– November 1991: Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in charge of the police operation on the day of the disaster, resigns on a police pension due to ill health.
– March 1993: Families seek a judicial review of the inquest, which is initially dismissed, then appealed against, then rejected by the Royal Courts of Justice, which rules the original inquests should stand.
– May 1997: New Labour government home secretary Jack Straw appoints Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to conduct a ‘scrutiny of evidence’, but he concludes new inquests are not warranted.
– July 2000: Mr Duckenfield and the ground commander on the day Superintendent Bernard Murray stand trial in Leeds charged with manslaughter in a private prosecution brought by the families. Mr Murray is cleared but the jury fails to reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield.
– November 2006: Anne Williams, whose son Kevin, 15, died in the disaster, submits her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
– March 2009: The ECHR rules Mrs Williams’s case should have been lodged earlier and is ‘out of time’.
– April 15 2009: Minister Andy Burnham is barracked while speaking at the 20th anniversary memorial at Anfield. He raises the matter at Cabinet and three months later the Home Office announces full disclosure of all information to be looked at by an independent panel.
– September 12 2012: A Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report is critical of blame put on to fans. Prime minister David Cameron offers in the Commons a ‘profound apology’ for the ‘double injustice’.
– October 12 2012: The Independent Police Complaints Commission launches its biggest ever investigation into police in the UK, centred on officers’ conduct over Hillsborough.
– December 19 2012: The High Court quashes the accidental death verdicts in the original inquests and orders new ones. The same day, home secretary Theresa May announces a new criminal probe to investigate ‘all of the people and organisations involved – before, on, and after’ the disaster.
– March 31 2014: New inquests begin at Birchwood Park, Warrington.
– April 26 2016: The inquest jury delivers its verdict, and finds that the 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed. It finds that blunders by South Yorkshire’s police and ambulance services ’caused or contributed to’ their deaths, and exonerated Liverpool fans of wrongdoing. South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable David Crompton admitted the force got the policing of the match ‘catastrophically wrong’ and ‘unequivocally’ accepted the inquest jury’s conclusions.
– June 28 2017: The Crown Prosecution Service announces six men will be charged following investigations into the disaster. Retired South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent Donald Denton, former detective chief inspector Alan Foster and solicitor Peter Metcalf are charged with doing acts with intent to pervert the course of public justice in relation to the process of amending statements. Former Merseyside and West Yorkshire chief constable Sir Norman Bettison is charged with four offences of misconduct in public office. Former Sheffield Wednesday secretary Graham Mackrell is charged with two offences of contravening a term of condition of a safety certificate contrary to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 and a health and safety offence. The CPS says Mr Duckenfield will be charged with manslaughter by gross negligence once a stay imposed after his earlier trial is lifted.
– June 29 2018: Judge Sir Peter Openshaw lifts the stay, meaning Mr Duckenfield will face trial. The prosecution decides not to proceed with one of the three offences Mr Mackrell is charged with.
– August 28 2018: Proceedings against Sir Norman Bettison are dropped by the prosecution, who say ‘the state of the evidence has changed’ following the death of a witness.
– January 14 2019: The trial of Mr Duckenfield and Mr Mackrell begins at Preston Crown Court. One of the two remaining offences Mr Mackrell is charged with is dropped.
– April 3 2019: After 29 hours and six minutes of deliberations, the jury finds Mr Mackrell guilty of failing to discharge his duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Jurors are unable to reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield.
– May 13 2019: Mr Mackrell is fined £6,500 and ordered to pay £5,000 costs for failing to ensure the health and safety of fans arriving at the ground on the day of the disaster.
– October 10 2019: The retrial of Mr Duckenfield is opened.
– November 29 2019: After a six-week case, Mr Duckenfield is cleared of manslaughter by gross negligence. Families call the trial a ‘disgrace’.
– April 20 2021: The trial of Mr Denton, Mr Foster and Mr Metcalf is opened at the Nightingale court sitting at the Lowry Theatre in Salford.
– May 26 2021: The three defendants are formally found not guilty after judge Mr Justice William Davis rules there is no case to answer.
Source: Daily Mail UK