PRESTON: David Duckenfield has been cleared of wrongdoing over the deaths of the innocent men, women and children unlawfully killed in the Hillsborough tragedy.
Jurors acquitted the former police chief of the manslaughter of those Liverpool supporters who never returned home from the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.
Their verdict means no-one will ever be held criminally responsible for the deaths of 96 people in Britain’s worst sporting disaster.
It was a conclusion that was met with tears among relatives of the victims who were in attendance at Preston Crown Court.
Duckenfield was the police match commander when Liverpool faced Nottingham Forest in Sheffield on April 15, 1989.
Jurors were told that, eight minutes before the 3pm kick-off, he ordered for stadium exit gates to be opened to relieve congestion outside turnstiles allocated to Liverpool supporters.
Many of those who then entered through Gate C went down a tunnel to the central pens of the Leppings Lane terraces, where a fatal crush developed.
Duckenfield denied the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 of the 96 people who died as a result.
He was not charged over the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, because he lost his battle for survival so long after the disaster. His death was caused by injuries suffered in the terrace crush, however.
After a seven week trial it took jurors three days to reach their verdict.
When their conclusion broke the tension of courtroom one it led to devastation in the public gallery, where relatives of the 96 have been present every day of the landmark retrial.
The defence closing speech was boycotted by family members, some of whom watched proceedings broadcast elsewhere in the court complex.
There was also disappointment in the Cunard building in Liverpool city centre, where family members, survivors and campaigners have also gathered daily to watch the proceedings unfold via video link.
Duckenfield, whose post-traumatic stress disorder had been given as a potential explanation for his lack of emotion during the case, stared silently ahead as the verdict was returned.
His acquittal followed a dramatic retrial in which 22 witnesses, including the parents of four teenagers killed in the disaster, gave evidence before the jury.
Closing the prosecution case Richard Matthews, QC, told jurors that, as match commander, Duckenfield had breached his “personal responsibility” to the victims through a series of “truly terrible” failings on and before the day of the match.
He argued the then chief superintendent had not adequately prepared for the role and had failed to address growing congestion at the Leppings Lane turnstiles before the situation became dangerous.
Mr Matthews accused Duckenfield of then failing to ensure that, once Gate C had been opened, those supporters who entered did not flow unrestricted into the already-busy central terrace pens.
He said the risk of death by crushing would have been “obvious and serious” to a reasonably competent match commander.
Duckenfield’s claim to the head of the Football Association that a gate had been “forced” – made just 23 minutes after the defendant had given permission to open gates – highlighted his realisation he was responsible for what followed, Mr Matthews said.
In response Benjamin Myers, QC, argued his client was the subject of a “shamefully unfair” prosecution that was loaded with hindsight.
He said Duckenfield, promoted to the role that would see him take charge of the match 19 days earlier, was placed in a situation that no-one had foreseen.
Mr Myers argued the overcalculation of the Leppings Lane terrace capacity in 1979 and “lethal modifications” over the following decade had turned the central pens into “death traps”.
He also argued Duckenfield was failed by the officers around him.
The verdict comes three and a half years after jurors at inquests into the disaster found the 96 had been unlawfully killed, a ruling which paved the way for his prosecution.
Earlier this year a separate jury had failed to reach a verdict when they were called to decide his fate.
That trial did lead to Graham Mackrell being found guilty of failing to take reasonable care to prevent crowds building up outside the Leppings Lane end through turnstile arrangements.
Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s secretary and safety officer at the time of the tragedy, he was fined £6,500 and ordered to pay costs of £5,000.
While his conviction was historic, on sentencing him judge Sir Peter Openshaw stressed Mackrell was not found guilty for causing the death of any of the 96 victims.