The Hillsborough Stadium Tragedy Killed 96 Soccer Fans, but the Criminal Cases Drag On 32 Years Later

Of all the terrible tragedies to have taken place in the stands at soccer stadiums around the world, the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 rates as one that was so easily avoidable. Ninety-six fans died on April 15, 1989, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest could play their FA Cup semifinal.

The game was abandoned following the massive loss of life. Amazingly, the last of the criminal cases related to the tragedy remain unresolved 32 years later.

What happened at Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989?

Flowers, shirts and photographs surround the eternal flame of the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield in Liverpool on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the disaster in which 96 Liverpool football fans were killed during a FA Cup football semifinal against Nottingham Forest. | Paul Ellis / AFP via Getty Images

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The FA Cup is soccer’s in-season tournament that gives every English team the opportunity to compete for the prestigious championship. The 1989 tournament had played down to the semifinals, and Liverpool was set to play Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium.

In a practice that had caused repeated issues over the years, large portions of the grandstand were configured as standing-room pens. With the pens already on their way to being filled to capacity, the police commander ordered an exit gate to be opened to ease congestion beyond the turnstiles at the entrances. That caused a rush of more fans into the pens, and spectators at the front were crushed.

There were 94 deaths recorded that day, one more a few days later, and a final death in 1993 attributed to the crush of spectators. The official narrative from authorities in the immediate aftermath was that drunken Liverpool fans were responsible for the tragedy.

A report issued the following year by a commission empaneled to investigate the disaster instead assigned primary blame to the South Yorkshire Police.

Families of the dead pressed for justice

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Two years after the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy, all of the deaths had been ruled accidental, a finding that many families deemed unacceptable. The Hillsborough Families Support Group pressed on by filing its own criminal charges against police site supervisor David Duckenfield and deputy Bernard Murray, but that attempt failed in 2000.

Another commission formed in 2009 rejected the ruling that the deaths were accidental and took an in-depth look at the behavior of police in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. A new coroner’s inquest ruled the cause of death as gross negligence by police and medics on the scene. In June 2017, six people were charged with offenses including gross-negligence homicide and perverting the course of justice.

Duckenfield faced the most serious charges. In November 2019, he was acquitted on 95 counts of manslaughter, Reuters reported. “I’m shocked and stunned by the verdict of the jury,” said Barry Devonside, whose 18-year-old son died at Hillsborough Stadium. “We, the families, have fought for 30 years valiantly.”

There are unresolved Hillsborough Stadium tragedy cases

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Two former police officers and a police force solicitor charged with perverting the course of justice following the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy will go on trial on April 19, 2021 – more than 32 years after the incident that claimed 96 lives.

South Yorkshire Police officers Donald Denton, 81, and Alan Foster, 73, and solicitor Peter Metcalf, 70, are all retired. After repeated delays, the trial was to have begun more than a year ago but was pushed back one more time because Foster was caring for his ill wife.

The three defendants are answering to charges that they altered official statements regarding the tragedy at the 1989 FA Cup semifinal.

With the trial about the start, the Hillsborough Families Support Group recently announced that it is disbanding.

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