Hillsborough families hit out after police chief David Duckenfield cleared over deaths of Liverpool fans

Families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough have hit out after match commander David Duckenfield was found not guilty of gross negligence manslaughter.

Former South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Mr Duckenfield, now 75, was on trial for the deaths of 95 supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

The verdict came at a retrial at Preston Crown Court, after the previous case ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

Following Thursday's ruling, relatives of loved ones who died at the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest said the verdict was a "disgrace" and they felt they been "stitched up again".

A young Liverpool fan sits with his head in his hands after the Hillsborough disaster. Credit: PA

Cries from families in the courtroom were audible, while others were seen in tears.

Jennie Hicks, whose two daughters were among those who passed away, said after the verdict: "I've got to live now the rest of my life knowing that my two children, and the other 94 families, are exactly the same - without anybody being accountable for those unlawful deaths."

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The jury returned its verdict after hearing six weeks of evidence in the case and 13 hours of deliberation.

Speaking after the ruling, Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation.”

Ms Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James was among those killed, added: “When 96 people, they say 95, we say 96, are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable.

  • ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman on the reaction to the verdict at Anfield

"The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?”

Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher, 18, died in the disaster, said: "I'm shocked and stunned by the verdict of the jury.

"We, the families, have fought for 30 years valiantly."

A woman being comforted as she kneels by floral tributes at the gate of the Hillsborough football ground. Credit: PA

Mr Duckenfield sat impassive in front of the dock with his hands clasped and then drank from a glass of water as the verdict was read out.

His wife, Ann, later went over to comfort her husband in the courtroom.

Mr Justice Openshaw discharged the jury and expressed his "thanks and admiration" for the part they had played in the trial.

One of the female jurors walked out in tears as the jury filed out of the courtroom.

Ian Lewis, partner at JMW Solicitors LLP, solicitor for Mr Duckenfield, said: "David is of course relieved that the jury has found him not guilty, however his thoughts and sympathies remain with the families of those who lost their loved ones.

"He understands the public interest in this case, but would ask that his privacy and that of his family is respected, and will not be commenting further."

The Hillsborough disaster resulted in the deaths of 96 people. Credit: PA

The retired chief superintendent denied the charge.

Mr Duckenfield stood trial earlier this year but the jury was discharged after failing to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered.

The court heard the chief superintendent ordered the opening of exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the ground at 2.52pm, eight minutes before kick-off, after the area outside the turnstiles became dangerously overcrowded.

More than 2,000 fans entered through exit gate C once it was opened and many headed for the tunnel ahead of them, which led to the central pens where the crush happened.

The court was played audio of the retired chief superintendent giving evidence to inquests in 2015.

At the hearings Mr Duckenfield accepted he should have taken steps to close the tunnel to the central pens after ordering the opening of the exit gate.

The retired police chief did not give evidence in the trial as the court heard he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Judge Sir Peter Openshaw also told jurors the condition could explain Mr Duckenfield's lack of reaction as he sat in the well of the court throughout the trial.

He said: "He has a resilient, passive and expressionless external presentation which gives no indication of his state of mind so don't draw an adverse inference against him."

Liverpool fans at Hillsborough trying to escape the overcrowding. Credit: PA

Benjamin Myers QC, defending Mr Duckenfield, told the jury he had been a "target of blame" for the disaster.

He told the court: "We say David Duckenfield did do what he was expected to do as match commander. He didn't breach his duty, he did what he was expected to do in difficult circumstances."

Summing up the case, the judge said: "The deaths of 96 spectators, many of whom were very young, is, of course, a profound human tragedy attended by much anguish and anger which for many has not passed with time.

"But, as both counsel have advised you and I will now direct you, as you go about your duty you must put aside your emotions and sympathies, either for the bereaved families or indeed for Mr Duckenfield, and decide the case with a cold, calm and dispassionate review of the evidence that you have heard in court."

In a statement, Liverpool Football Club said: "The journey that reached today's stage, and will continue, is testament to the perseverance and determination of all involved in the ongoing campaign for justice.

"We also reiterate that the inquests in April 2016 concluded that the behaviour of Liverpool supporters did not cause or contribute to the Hillsborough disaster.

"We were disappointed that the allegations were raised again in this process.

"We have immense admiration for the Hillsborough families, survivors and campaigners for what they have achieved and our thoughts remain with them and those 96 Liverpool supporters who went to watch their team and never came home."