The first steps towards figures of authority facing justice for their role in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which saw 96 Liverpool fans die at the Sheffield Wednesday ground were taken yesterday when five men appeared in court on criminal charges relating to the tragedy.
Families of the victims packed the court to see the beginning of what could be the last act in the 28-year-long saga, which began when police opened the gates at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and a crowd surge led to scores of fans being crushed to death.
After the events of April 15, 1989, it is alleged that senior members of the South Yorkshire police force oversaw a cover-up during which rank-and-file officers were instructed to falsify evidence while others spread the story among the media that the disaster had been as a result of fans’ drunkenness.
Sir Norman Bettison, Graham Mackrell, Donald Denton, Peter Metcalf and Alan Foster face a variety of charges including misconduct in a public office, performing acts with intent to pervert the course of justice, and breaching the terms of Hillsborough’s safety certificate contrary to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, and failing to take reasonable care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
All five men appeared in court two of the magistrates court in Warrington, sitting behind a reinforced glass screen. Mr Mackrell announced his intention to plead not guilty, while lawyers for the other four told senior district judge and chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot that their clients also intended to give the same plea.
Sir Norman, an inspector for the force in 1989, faces four charges of misconduct for allegedly lying about his role following the disaster, and in statements that subsequently made in 1998 and after the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012.
Mr Denton, Mr Foster and Mr Metcalf, respectively a chief superintendent and chief inspector for South Yorkshire Police, and the force’s solicitor at the time of the disaster, are accused of overseeing the changing of statements made by police officers, thus perverting the course of justice.
Mr Mackrell, the former secretary of Sheffield Wednesday was the club’s designated safety officer for the stadium, is accused of the counts of breaching Hillsborough’s safety certificate; he is expected to be tried separately from the police officers and Mr Metcalf.
A sicth man, David Duckenfield, a South Yorkshire police chief superintendent in 1989 who was in charge of policing the match, has also been charged, with the manslaughter of 95 people (the 96th victim, Tony Bland, died four years after the game when his life support machine was turned off).
Because Mr Duckenfield faced a private prosecution relating to the case brought by families of the victims in 2000, where the jury was unable to reach a verdict, the Crown Prosecution Service must apply to the high court to allow further criminal proceedings to take place against him.
Evelyn Mills, whose 21-year-old brother Peter McDonnell died at the semi-final, said: “This is the beginning of another milestone in the history of Hillsborough.”