British prosecutors charged a former senior police officer with manslaughter on Wednesday as they announced the first criminal cases in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster that left 96 people dead – many of them crushed against metal fences – and changed English football forever.
The families of the victims have waged a decades-long quest to seek justice for their loved ones, who they believed were unfairly blamed in the April 15, 1989, tragedy. The initial deaths were ruled accidental – a ruling overturned in 2012 after a new, wide-ranging inquiry.
Last year new inquests found that the 96 fans had been unlawfully killed. Files were sent to prosecutors to consider criminal charges and they announced their highly anticipated decision Wednesday.
Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher, 18, was among the 96, pumped his fist after a meeting with lawyers and other relatives.
“Everybody applauded when it was announced that the most senior police officer on that particular day will have charges presented to him,” he said.
Those charged include the police commander on the day, David Duckenfield, who is accused of gross negligence manslaughter in the deaths of 95 men, women and children. Prosecutors declined to issue a manslaughter charge relating to the 96th casualty because he died four years after the fateful match.
The former chief of South Yorkshire Police, Norman Bettison, is charged with misconduct in public office for lying about the disaster and its aftermath. Graham Henry Mackrell, the secretary and safety officer for the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club at the time, was charged with failing to carry out health and safety duties.
Peter Metcalf, the attorney for the South Yorkshire Police, was charged with acting “with intent to pervert the course of public justice” in regards to changes in witness statements during an inquiry into the tragedy. Former Chief Superintendent Donald Denton and former Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster were charged for their involvement in the same matter.
“Criminal proceedings have now commenced and the defendants have a right to a fair trial,” said Sue Hemming, the head prosecutor for special crime and counterterror. “It is extremely important that there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.”
The tragedy at the stadium in Sheffield unfolded when more than 2,000 Liverpool football fans flooded into a standing-room section behind a goal, with the 54,000-capacity stadium already nearly full for the match against Nottingham Forest. The victims were smashed against metal anti-riot fences or trampled underfoot. Many suffocated in the crush.
The original inquest recorded verdicts of accidental death. But the families challenged it and pressed for a new inquiry. They succeeded in getting the verdicts overturned in 2012 after a far-reaching inquiry that examined previously secret documents and found wrongdoing and mistakes by police.
The Hillsborough disaster prompted a sweeping modernization of stadiums across England. Top division stadiums were largely transformed into safer, all-seat venues, with fences around nearby fields torn down to avoid further tragedies.
British Prime Minister Theresa May called Wednesday a “day of really mixed emotions” for the families of the fans who died, but said that justice is moving forward “after so many years of waiting.”
Trevor Hicks, whose daughters Sarah and Vicki died in the disaster, said Wednesday’s decision to charge people was more than just a victory for the victims’ families. “This is a success for society at large, not just for us,” he said.