Former South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent, David Duckenfield, has been found not guilty of gross negligence manslaughter owing to his role as match commander for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, at which 96 people lost their lives at Hillsborough stadium.

The ruling yesterday (Thursday) concluded a retrial at Preston Crown Court after the first trial ended on April 3 with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Duckenfield, who is now 75, was charged in June 2017 in relation to 95 of the Liverpool fans who died. The 96th victim, Tony Bland, was critically injured in the crush and died in 1993. Under the law at the time, a criminal charge connected to a death could only be brought if the victim died within a year and a day of the incident that allegedly caused it.

The disaster at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday, is regarded as one of the darkest episodes in English football. At the trial, the court heard that Duckenfield had ordered the opening of exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium at 2.52pm GMT on April 15, 1989, eight minutes before the game was due to kick off.

This was after the area outside the turnstiles had become dangerously overcrowded. More than 2,000 fans then entered via exit gate C, many heading for the tunnel in front of them which led to the central pens of the terrace resulting in a crush.

The prosecution alleged Duckenfield’s failure to identify hazards at the turnstiles, monitor the numbers of fans waiting to enter, relieve the pressures outside, monitor the numbers in the central pens and direct people away from the tunnel and central pens amounted to gross negligence. It claimed he had a “personal responsibility” for what happened on the day.

Duckenfield pleaded not guilty, arguing that the disaster was disaster was caused by factors such as Hillsborough’s historic safety flaws and failings by some of the other police officers. Duckenfield’s defence counsel claimed the case against him was “deeply unfair”, with Benjamin Myers QC telling the jury his client had become “the focus of blame”. “We say that is unfair, there are so many other people at fault, and so many causes,” Myers said, according to the BBC.

Following the ruling, Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said, according to The Guardian newspaper: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.”

Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James was among the 96 victims, added: “When 96 people – they say 95, we say 96 – are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable. The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is: who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?”

In a statement, Sue Hemming, director of legal services for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: “The disaster at Hillsborough 30 years ago has caused unimaginable suffering to the families of those who sadly lost their lives and to everybody affected by the tragic events of that day. They were let down with the most catastrophic consequences imaginable. I know how important these proceedings have been to everyone, even though they came far too late.

“The events of 15 April 1989 have been considered on a number of occasions, including at the second inquest concluding in 2016. It is important to remember that criminal proceedings have a very different purpose to an inquest. The not guilty verdict today does not affect or alter the inquest jury’s findings of unlawful killing or their conclusion that Liverpool fans were in no way responsible for the 96 deaths that resulted.”

Liverpool added in a statement: “The journey that reached today’s stage, and will continue, is testament to the perseverance and determination of all involved in the ongoing campaign for justice.

“We also reiterate that the inquests in April 2016 concluded that the behaviour of Liverpool supporters did not cause or contribute to the Hillsborough disaster. We were disappointed that the allegations were raised again in this process.

“We have immense admiration for the Hillsborough families, survivors and campaigners for what they have achieved and our thoughts remain with them and those 96 Liverpool supporters who went to watch their team and never came home.”

The resulting Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster brought about a ban on standing in the top two tiers of English football and the implementation of all-seater stadia. Various stakeholders are currently attempting to return safe standing to the domestic game.

Image: Sheffield Wednesday