WARRINGTON, England (Reuters) - Police were responsible for the deaths of 96 Liverpool soccer fans in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium crush, a jury concluded on Tuesday after two years of hearings into Britain’s worst sporting disaster.
The inquest verdicts of “unlawful killing”, which could pave the way for prosecutions, were greeted with a mix of cheers and tears by relatives of the victims, who sang the Liverpool fans’ anthem “You’ll never walk alone” outside the court in Warrington, northern England.
The families had campaigned for almost three decades to get “Justice for the 96”, refusing to accept the deaths were accidental.
They said the police, who at first blamed the tragedy on the supporters themselves, had told lies and staged a cover-up of “industrial proportions” to hide their mistakes in managing the crowd surging into the stadium.
“The conspiracy and lies which began on the 15th April 1989 and continued over the years involving police, politicians, and officials of high standing has been the most evil act of man’s inhumanity to man,” Karen Hankin, whose husband Eric was among those killed, told a news conference.
The fans, many of them young, died in an overcrowded, fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield, northern England, at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on a sunny spring afternoon. It was one of the world’s worst stadium disasters.
Britons were shocked by harrowing images of supporters crushed against metal fences, bodies lying on the pitch and spectators using wooden advertising hoardings as makeshift stretchers.
After the longest jury proceedings ever held in England, the inquest jurors ruled by a 7-2 majority that the fans had been unlawfully killed, finding police commanders had made mistakes in the build-up to the match and on the day itself. The jury absolved Liverpool fans of any role.
The coroner, John Goldring, had told jurors that to return an unlawful killing verdict they would have to be sure that David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge at the match, was responsible for “manslaughter by gross negligence”.
Duckenfield had told the inquest he had lied about fans forcing a gate open, and acknowledged that his failure to close an access tunnel had directly caused the loss of lives.
The state Crown Prosecution Service said it was considering whether criminal charges should be brought against individuals or any corporate body. An independent police watchdog is also investigating.
The tragedy changed the face of English soccer. Banks of terracing and metal fences around pitches disappeared, replaced by modern, all-seated venues and better security.
“Landmark day as the Hillsborough inquest provides long overdue justice for the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the tragic disaster,” Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter.
In 2012, Cameron apologized to families of the victims after a damning independent report detailed a catalog of errors and evidence that police dishonestly tried to deflect blame onto Liverpool fans who they portrayed as being aggressive, drunk, and ticketless.
The new inquests were ordered in December that year, when London’s High Court quashed accidental death verdicts from 21 years earlier.
Andy Burnham, a Liverpudlian who speaks on home affairs for the opposition Labour Party, said the tragedy had been “the greatest miscarriage of justice of our times”, and people must be held accountable.
David Crompton, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police said his force “unequivocally” accepted the jury’s findings and that they had got the policing on the day “catastrophically wrong”.
“The force failed the victims and failed their families,” he told reporters.
The disaster is still an open wound in Liverpool, the port city of nearly half a million people that is passionate about soccer.
Many in Liverpool still boycott Rupert Murdoch’s top-selling Sun tabloid after it accused their fans of stealing from the dying, urinating on policemen and beating up an officer giving the kiss of life. The newspaper’s executives have since apologized for the story.
Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Mark Trevelyan