LONDON — A retired British police commander was not guilty of manslaughter, a jury decided on Thursday, 30 years after a crowd crush at a soccer match that killed 96 people, the worst disaster in modern British sports history.
David Duckenfield, 75, a former South Yorkshire police chief superintendent, faced charges of “gross negligence manslaughter” that could have sent him to prison for life.
The tragedy was initially blamed on the behavior of the fans, but later investigations showed that it resulted from the mistakes of officials who were responsible for controlling the flow of fans into the stadium.
The April 15, 1989, disaster at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, was a watershed moment, a psychological scar for a generation of soccer fans, challenging longstanding crowd-control practices and public trust in the police.
In the weeks after the deadly crush, South Yorkshire Police officials blamed Liverpool fans, falsely citing drunkenness, hooliganism and late arrivals. That version of events was amplified by some news outlets, particularly the tabloid newspaper The Sun, which reported that fans had urinated on police officers and picked the pockets of fallen victims.
The police narrative and the media coverage enraged many of the survivors and victims’ relatives. And when the initial coroners’ inquests called the deaths accidental, family members protested and spent years demanding that officials be prosecuted.
More than two decades passed before subsequent government investigations put the primary blame on the police for failed crowd control practices. They found that officials had lied to the news media about the fans’ behavior and that investigators had edited witness statements to remove anything critical of the police.
Supporters of the two teams that were to play that day, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, were segregated in separate parts of the stadium to prevent conflicts — a standard practice, then and now.
Many of the fans did not have assigned seats, but had bought tickets for fenced areas, or terraces, where they would watch the game while standing. That configuration, also standard at the time, was prohibited in the upper echelons of British soccer after the Hillsborough tragedy.
More than 10,000 Liverpool fans had bought tickets for a set of standing terraces that could be reached through just seven turnstiles, so entry was slow, and a growing and restless crowd formed outside the stadium, waiting to get in.
The deadly crush took place when police commanders decided to open an exit gate rather than make people go through the turnstiles, and then failed to order officers inside the stadium to steer people away from areas that were already full. Thousands rushed forward at once, crushing those already in the crowded pens.
In one section, “the pressure became so severe that the faces of fans at the front were pressed into the perimeter fencing, distorted by the mesh,” an official investigative panel reported in 2012. “As fans lost consciousness, some slipped to the ground under the feet of others unable to move. Survivors recall the gradual compression on their chests preventing them from breathing.”
The initial death toll was 95 people. One person who was left in a vegetative state died four years later — too long after the disaster for a homicide charge.
In 2016, a second set of coroner’s inquests found that the victims had been “unlawfully killed.” It put particular responsibility on Mr. Duckenfield, but also found fault with other police officials, the ambulance service, and stadium management.