It's taken the British justice system 27 years, one week and four days to come up with an answer. It's required two inquests, the first hideously botched; a formal inquiry; a number of unsuccessful appeals to various courts; a subsequent Independent Panel; a long-running and remarkable justice campaign; much admirable investigative journalism; and the peeling back of years and years of political and institutional obfuscation and cover up. But the families of those who died at Hillsborough finally know how the 96 lost their lives: They were unlawfully killed by those who were obliged to ensure their safety.
This finding is not in itself a criminal conviction; inquests determine the legal facts surrounding deaths, but do not determine criminal guilt. But it is an assertion by this jury that they believe beyond all reasonable doubt that the killings amounted to breach of criminal law. In this case, the jury were told that they would have to be "sure that David Duckenfield, the match commander, was responsible for the manslaughter by gross negligence of those 96 people." They were directed to consider his "conduct" as well as his "responsibility." Seven to two, they were sure.
The first inquest, consistently criticised by campaigners and journalists, did not consider any evidence beyond a cut-off point of 3:15 p.m. that afternoon, nine minutes after the game was stopped and the fans began to enter the pitch. It was composed of a series of mini-inquests in which police officers read out short accounts and no witnesses were called. And it returned a blanket verdict of "accidental death;" a finding that sat on the books until 2012 despite witness testimony that some victims had been alive and conscious as late as 4 p.m., and despite repeated and consistent complaints that evidence was misrepresented or overlooked.
This second inquest has concluded that 95 of the 96 victims died, or could have died, after that 3:15 p.m. cut-off point. It has exposed police officers and other officials to cross-examination, in the course of which Duckenfield accepted responsibility for the deaths, acknowledged that he was inadequately experienced to oversee the operation and admitted that he lied about his decision to open the exit gate and admit hundreds of fans into the already overcrowded central pens of the terrace. And it has replaced that finding of accidental death with this of unlawful killing.
This finding is important not just because it finally answers the question of how. It is important because it finally drags the British institutional record into line with what was known by many within and without football at the time and has only become more obvious since. It is another crack in what was for years an almost-united front of dehumanising contempt for ordinary people from the political, judicial and policing institutions of Britain, along with those elements in the media that cravenly backed them. And it forces those who would still deny the obvious to either finally retract, or admit that they don't actually care what happened and they just want to get on with noisily hating one or more of the following: people from Liverpool; people from the North; people from the working class; people who like football; people.
It is, also, a demonstration of the power of grass-roots campaigning and persistence and sheer bloody-minded not-backing-down in the face of said indifference and contempt. Some have attempted to suggest that today's outcome should restore faith in the British justice system. It should not; justice delayed is always justice denied, and this outcome had to be clawed out of a reluctant state. Instead, it should bolster our faith that justice can sometimes be achieved despite the best efforts of exceptionally powerful people and bodies who have an interest in seeing it frustrated. That may be significantly less comforting, but we'll have to make do.
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So, this inquest outcome establishes that the Hillsborough families were right. What comes next is the process of discovering exactly how wrong everybody else was. Two connected investigations are still ongoing. One, the police-led Operation Resolve, is looking at the actions of the police and other authorities leading up to and during the disaster; the other, being carried out by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, looks at the post-disaster actions of the police and the cover up that ensued. That process began, remarkably, before some of the victims had even passed away — the BBC had the "story" about fans forcing the gates fewer than 10 minutes after the game was abandoned — and unfurled over the subsequent days, months and years. An unholy alliance of establishment forces came together as Conservative MPs and newspaper editors (most notoriously the Sun, but there were others) enthusiastically disseminated the smears that came down from South Yorkshire Police. That this was the work of, in the words of Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a "tanked up mob." Meanwhile, the officers involved were making their statements; statements that were subsequently redacted and altered by senior officers. Two CCTV tapes vanished from a locked control room.
Both these investigations are expected to conclude by the end of this year, and after that, the Crown Prosecution Service will decide if the evidence warrants criminal prosecutions, if there is any reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction and if such prosecutions would be in public interest. (That last question, at least, is in no doubt.) But the time that has passed — time that was bought by the cover up — may well count against the prospects of conviction, and so in turn prosecution. Justice delayed again, perhaps.
The idea of closure is a hopeless one in cases like this, where the shocks and scars are borne by so many different people in so many different ways. For some this will be a glorious moment of blessed relief and vindication, for others an irrelevance in a world long broken. But Hillsborough has long persisted as a snarl of unanswered questions at the heart of British football and British social history, and now we have one of the most important and fundamental answers. They were unlawfully killed by those who were obliged to ensure their safety.