New inquests begin into deaths of 96 Liverpool fans in 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster
Monday, Mar 31, 2014 10:45 am
LONDON - As Liverpool closes in on a first English league title in 24 years, fans are returning to the club's darkest day.
After years of campaigning to expose wrongdoing by the authorities, new inquests into Britain's worst sports disaster are beginning this week, with the families of the 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death at Hillsborough in 1989 seeking verdicts of unlawful killing.
The original accidental death verdicts were overturned by the High Court in London in 2012 after a fresh tranche of documents uncovered a coverup by police after the incident, which happened during Liverpool's FA Cup semifinal match against Nottingham Forest.
The crush took place after a standing-only section of the stadium for visiting fans became overcrowded, and authorities sought to place the blame on the victims by characterizing the disaster as a result of hooliganism. Liverpool fan groups maintain that police were to blame for herding the fans into that section of the stands to avoid over-crowding outside the stadium.
The new hearings could take about a year, with jury selection beginning on Monday at a purpose-built courtroom on a trading estate in Warrington near Liverpool. Over the next month, families will be able to tell the jury about their relatives who died.
"I'm really, really nervous. It's been a long, long fight," said Charlotte Hennessy, who lost her father James Robert Hennessy in the disaster when she was six years old. "Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end. I was a bit of an emotional wreck this weekend. I've not slept a wink."
The coming weeks will be emotionally charged for Liverpool fans.
The team is on the cusp of winning the league for the first time since 1990, with eight successive victories putting Liverpool top of the Premier League. If the team wins the remaining six games, Liverpool is guaranteed the trophy.
The biggest game comes at home against title rival Manchester City on April 13 — just two days before a service to mark the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough will be held at Anfield.
The fresh hearings come after the families have fought for more than two decades to prove their claims that misconduct and mistakes by authorities were responsible for the deaths. Prime Minister David Cameron has already lambasted the "failure of the state to protect their loved ones" and "denigration of the deceased."
Documents released in 2012 uncovered a sophisticated attempt by police to shift the blame onto the Liverpool fans by instructing officers to change statements and insinuate that many fans were drunk and had histories of violence or criminality.
Many of the fans died due to lack of attention from police and emergency services after about 2,000 supporters were herded by officers into caged-in enclosures that were already full. The jury will study previously unseen video footage from the day and a three-dimensional model of Hillsborough before visiting the ground where Sheffield Wednesday still plays.
Inquests cannot determine criminal liability for individuals, but a verdict of unlawful killing would give families of the victims a long-sought sense of vindication. Two criminal investigations are running parallel to the inquests, in which 22 people, including retired or current police officers, have been identified as potential suspects. Some suspects have already been questioned on a range of offences, including manslaughter, misconduct in a public office and obstructing justice, according to a police watchdog.
"We've done all our fighting, and we know that my dad is innocent and all the 96 were innocent," said Amy McGlone, whose father Alan died at Hillsborough.
"We've got most of the truth there now and facts," McGlone added. "People are still walking around thinking that they've done nothing wrong when they have."
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris