Hillsborough officer's manslaughter charge 'unfair', court hears

Match commander David Duckenfield blamed for ‘everybody else’s mistakes’, defence said

The prosecution for manslaughter of David Duckenfield, the former South Yorkshire police officer who commanded the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough at which 96 people were killed, is “deeply and bitterly unfair”, his defence barrister has told his trial.

Benjamin Myers QC, outlining Duckenfield’s defence in an opening speech to the jury, said he was criticising the prosecution case for singling out Duckenfield to be criminally charged with gross negligence manslaughter, when many other factors and people were to blame, including other police officers.

Myers pointed out that in the prosecution’s opening speech, Richard Matthews QC had said there may have been “collective and personal failures on the part of very many, if not all”, of those responsible for the planning and organisation of the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, attended by 54,000 people, on 15 April 1989.

Some failures and causes of the tragedy went back years, Myers said, including the metal fencing and over-calculation of the safe capacity for the Leppings Lane terrace at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground, allocated for supporters of Liverpool, where the lethal crush took place.

The prosecution of Duckenfield, who was promoted to Ch Supt, and Hillsborough match commander 19 days before the semi-final, seeks to hold him responsible for “everybody else’s mistakes”, Myers said.

“That makes the mistake of confusing the command responsibility he had as a match commander, with criminal responsibility for what went wrong.”

To single him out, Myers told the jury: “We say quite plainly that it is bitterly unfair.”

The defence argues that several factors contributed to the disaster and meant “something like this was going to happen sooner or later,” including “bad stadium design” at Hillsborough; “bad planning” of the semi-final; “crowd behaviour; police behaviour, mistakes by individuals, and genuine human error.”

Duckenfield, 75, is not sitting in the dock but in the well of court one at Preston crown court, two rows behind Myers, who pointed him out to the jury of eight women and four men.

Myers told them that football hooliganism was the “overarching” context for the metal fencing and style of policing in 1989, saying matches were characterised by “the sudden outbreak of mass disorder and even violence, in and around football stadia”. He told the court that football was “very different” then compared to conditions at matches now, featuring “an almost obsessive focus upon segregation of opposing supporters”, which was regarded as crucial in the 1980s.

The previous year, 1988, Hillsborough also hosted the FA Cup semi final, between the same two clubs, which was generally regarded as successful, Myers said. The prosecution alleges that the crucial difference, and reason for the 1989 event culminating in disaster, was the appointment of Duckenfield to replace the previous, highly experienced Hillsborough match commander, Ch Supt Brian Mole.

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