LONDON – Britain’s High Court has overturned a ruling that the death of 96 Liverpool fans in the Hillsborough disaster was accidental, and a new criminal investigation into the 1989 stadium tragedy was ordered by the government on Wednesday.
The wrongdoing and mistakes that led to the crush at an FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest were fully exposed only in September after an independent panel examined previously secret documents, vindicating a 23-year search for the truth by the victims’ families.
The papers uncovered a sophisticated attempt by police to shift the blame onto Liverpool fans watching from a standing-room-only section at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, by instructing officers to change statements and insinuate that many fans were drunk and had histories of violence or criminality.
British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized in September for errors by authorities surrounding Britain’s worst sports disaster.
Many of the victims’ families were at the High Court in London on Wednesday to hear Attorney General Dominic Grieve successfully apply for the accidental death verdicts to be overturned.
“It is bittersweet,” said Michelle Carlile, whose 19-year-old brother Paul died at Hillsborough. “We have known the truth for 23 years.”
Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge and two other judges decided that fresh inquests should be held.
Igor Judge said there had been a “profound, almost palpable belief that justice has not been done and that it cannot be done without and until the full truth is revealed.”
In Britain, an inquest is held to determine the facts whenever someone dies unexpectedly, violently or in disputed circumstances.
Inquests do not determine criminal liability, but as the hearing was being held the government announced that those deemed responsible for the disaster could now face criminal prosecution.
Jon Stoddart, who recently retired as chief constable of the Durham force, will lead the new police inquiry, which will also work with the previously announced investigation by the country’s police watchdog into officers’ conduct.
“My role is to ensure that we determine exactly what happened in the lead-up to and on the day of the disaster and establish where any culpability lies,” Stoddart said.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she wants to “deliver justice” for the fans who died and their families.
“I am determined to see a swift and thorough response to the findings of the Hillsborough Panel,” she said.
Many of the fans died due to lack of attention from police and emergency services after around 2,000 supporters were herded by officers into caged-in enclosures that were already full at the stadium in central England.
The disaster led to the introduction of all-seated stadiums for leading clubs in England.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris