FAMILIES of the 96 have branded the trial of Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield a “disgrace” after he was cleared of the gross negligence manslaughter of Liverpool fans who died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.
There were gasps as the seven women and three men on the jury at Preston Crown Court returned its verdict on Thursday, following a trial which lasted more than six weeks.
Speaking at a press conference at the Cunard Building in Liverpool, Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster, said: “The families know who is guilty.
“Our city knows who is guilty. He can walk around now and get on with his life with a not guilty verdict.“To me that is a disgrace.”
After the verdict was announced, Christine Burke, the daughter of Henry Burke who was killed in the tragedy, stood in the public gallery and tearfully said to the judge: “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.”
Watching proceedings in the Cunard Building, Mary Corrigan, mother of 17-year-old victim Keith McGrath, shouted: “Stitched up again”, while other family members were in tears.
Inquests in 2016 found the 96 men, women and children who were fatally injured on April 15 1989 were unlawfully killed on the basis that Duckenfield, 75, breached his duty of care and was found grossly negligent.
Mrs Aspinall, who criticised judge Sir Peter Openshaw for the way he handled the case, described the trial as a “kangaroo court”.
She said: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.
“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?”
Under the law at the time, Mr Duckenfield was not charged over the death of the 96th victim Tony Bland, because he died more than a year and a day after the disaster.
Ian Lewis, partner at JMW Solicitors LLP who represented Duckenfield, said: “David is of course relieved that the jury has found him not guilty, however his thoughts and sympathies remain with the families of those who lost their loved ones.”
Steve Kelly, whose brother Michael, 38, died in the tragedy, told the press conference: “A higher judge will have the last say on this. God bless the 96.”
In a statement, Liverpool Football Club said: “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 retired chief superintendent stood trial earlier this year, but the jury was discharged after failing to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered.
The court heard he ordered the opening of exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the ground at 2.52pm, eight minutes before kick-off, after the area outside the turnstiles became dangerously overcrowded.
More than 2,000 fans entered through exit gate C once it was opened and many headed for the tunnel ahead of them, which led to the central pens where the crush happened.
Duckenfield did not give evidence in the trial because, the court heard, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Judge Sir Peter Openshaw also told jurors the condition could explain Duckenfield’s lack of reaction as he sat in the well of the court throughout the trial.
Duckenfield sat impassive in front of the dock with his hands clasped and then drank from a glass of water after the verdict came in after the jury had deliberated for 13 hours and 43 minutes.
His wife, Ann, later went over to comfort her husband in the courtroom.
Additional Reporting by PA Media