27 years ago Merseysiders suffered the worst day of their lives when their friends and loved ones never made it home from an FA Cup semifinal in Sheffield. In the wake of their unspeakable losses, they were forced to live a new trauma as law enforcement officials, the media, and members of Margaret Thatcher’s government began spinning a narrative that placed the responsibility for their loved ones’ deaths on their own shoulders. They spend the better part of three decades, putting their lives and careers on hold, to make sure the truth was heard and put on public record— that their deaths were not their fault.
Those friends and family members were finally vindicated today when the jury in the Hillsborough inquest returned a verdict saying that the 96 Liverpool fans who died were victims of “unlawful killing” and were not responsible for their own deaths.
The nine-member jury was asked to answer 14 questions on the facts of the incident where responsibility lay. Their answers placed blame on security and logistics coordinators for the match, as well as the South Yorkshire police and Sheffield Wednesday staff (Hillsborough Stadium is their home ground). One of the 14 questions asked if the behavior of Liverpool fans had caused or in any way contributed to the incident; the jury unanimously answered No.
The verdict brings the inquest to a close after more than two years, making it the longest such case in British legal history. The inquest was ordered in late 2012 after an independent panel found evidence of a massive cover-up by the police to protect their own by smearing the victims and survivors and blaming them for their own deaths.
They were aided in this by members of the media, notably The Sun, who published a story days after the disaster headlined “The Truth,” which accused Liverpool fans of unruly behavior that caused the mass crush and trampling as well as urinating on police officers and robbing victims. This false account of the disaster stuck and for nearly three decades Liverpool fans were perceived to be out-of-control drunkards by a wide range of fellow countrymen, from rival football supporters to officials in Margaret Thatcher’s government.
The inquest’s mandate was confined to fact-finding. It was not a criminal trial and the jury’s verdict does not entail criminal or civil penalties. A trial may be forthcoming, however, as the Crown Prosecution Service is looking into possible charges against some of the people who were responsible for poor planning and execution of security for the match; most notably David Duckenfield, the South Yorkshire police officer who was in charge of security for the game.
Following the verdict, Liverpool FC chairman Ian Ayre released a statement thanking the jury and praising Hillsborough survivors and family members who spent the past 27 years pursuing justice.
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government would formally respond to the verdict this week. Cameron himself post this on Twitter earlier today:
After the verdict was delivered and proceedings were concluded, family members— many of whom had attended every single day of the hearing for over two years— stood outside the courtroom crying and embracing each other before joining together to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In some ways, today’s verdict doesn’t really change anything. 96 innocent people are still dead, lives were still upended, families were still broken up. But the verdict does a lot to exonerate a maligned group of people who were blamed for their own tragedy. It exposed a case of shocking institutional failure and a conspiracy by public officials to deflect responsibility for said tragedy by blaming the victims. And, hopefully, it will bring a sense of closure to those for whom the horror and trauma of April 15th, 1989 never stopped happening.