LONDON — Prosecutors charged a former senior police commander with manslaughter Wednesday in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster that left 96 people dead — long-awaited vindication for the families of the victims after authorities spent years blaming fans for the catastrophe.
The charges announced against former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and five others were met with applause from victims’ relatives who had waged a decades-long quest for justice for their loved ones after the deaths were ruled accidental — a decision that was overturned in 2012 after a wide-ranging inquiry found a coverup by police.
The disaster, in which many victims were crushed against metal fences, prompted a sweeping modernization of stadiums across Britain, where standing-room-only sections like the one that contributed to the trampling of fans in the overcrowded stadium were commonplace. Top division stadiums were largely transformed into safer, all-seat venues, with fences around the playing surface torn down to avoid further tragedies.
Last year, a new inquest found that all 96 fans had been unlawfully killed and an independent police investigation asked prosecutors to consider criminal charges in the case. The Crown Prosecution Service announced its highly anticipated decision on Wednesday, filing charges against four police officers, a lawyer and an official of the team whose stadium was the venue for the April 15, 1989 match.
Barry Devonside, whose 18-year-old son, Christopher, was among those killed, pumped his fist after the indictments were made public.
“Everybody applauded when it was announced that the most senior police officer on that particular day will have charges presented to him,” Devonside said.
Duckenfield, the police commander on the day of the tragedy, faced the most serious charge — gross negligence manslaughter in the deaths of 95 men, women and children. Duckenfield’s failures in discharging his “personal responsibility were extraordinarily bad and contributed substantially to the deaths,” prosecutors said in a statement.
They declined to issue a manslaughter charge related to the 96th fatality because the young man died four years after the fateful match.
Speaking before the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May called Wednesday a “day of really mixed emotions” for the families of the fans who died, adding that justice was moving forward “after so many years of waiting.”
The tragedy at the stadium in Sheffield unfolded when more than 2,000 Liverpool soccer fans flooded into a standing-room section behind a goal, when the 54,000-capacity stadium was nearly full for a match against Nottingham Forest. The victims were smashed against metal anti-riot fences or trampled underfoot. Many suffocated in the crush.
The original inquest recorded verdicts of accidental death. But the families challenged that ruling and pressed for a new inquiry. They succeeded in getting the verdicts overturned by the High Court in 2012 after the far-reaching probe that examined previously secret documents and found wrongdoing and mistakes by authorities.
Sue Hemming, the head prosecutor for special crime and counterterror, said Wednesday in announcing the charges: “Criminal proceedings have now commenced, and the defendants have a right to a fair trial.” British law strictly limits what can be reported about a case once charges have been laid, and Hemming reminded the media that “it is extremely important that there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.”
Trevor Hicks, whose daughters Sarah and Vicki died in the disaster, said Wednesday’s indictments were more than just a victory for the victims’ families.
“This is a success for society at large, not just for us,” he said.
This story has been corrected to show the former chief of South Yorkshire Police’s last name is Bettison.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.
Danica Kirka, The Associated Press