Hillsborough trial: Men acquitted as judge rules no case to answer

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image captionL-R: Alan Foster, Donald Denton and Peter Metcalf were accused of altering police statements

Two retired police officers and an ex-solicitor accused of altering police statements after the Hillsborough disaster have been acquitted.

Retired Ch Supt Donald Denton, retired Det Ch Insp Alan Foster and former solicitor Peter Metcalf had denied perverting the course of justice.

Mr Justice William Davis ruled they had no case to answer.

Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died in the disaster, said the ruling was "an absolute mockery" and a "shambles".

"We're always the losers no matter what the outcome today," she said.

Ninety-six Liverpool fans died as a result of the crush at the FA Cup semi-final match at Sheffield Wednesday's ground on 15 April 1989.

Mr Denton, Mr Foster and Mr Metcalf were accused of trying to minimise the blame placed on South Yorkshire Police in the aftermath of the disaster by altering statements.

However, the judge said the statements had been prepared for the public inquiry chaired by Lord Taylor in 1990.

He said this was not a statutory inquiry and therefore not considered "a court of law", so it was not a "course of public justice" which could be perverted.

Prosecutor Sarah Whitehouse QC said they would not seek leave to appeal against the judge's decision.

image captionNinety-six Liverpool fans died as a result of the disaster on 15 April 1989

Speaking at the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield, Ms Aspinall said: "We've got the death certificate with 96 unlawfully killed but yet not one person has been held to account."

She said she felt there was "a cover-up over a cover-up" but she said the Hillsborough families "could go no further".

"They are tired, they are getting old, a lot of them have gone to their graves tormented and to me that is a disgrace," she said.

Mary Corrigan, whose 17-year-old son Keith McGrath died in the tragedy, said she was "so angry".

She also criticised the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for their lack of support for the families.

Liverpool FC said the decision was a "huge disappointment" and victims had been "let down yet again".

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who campaigned with the Hillsborough families, said: "We've all given it our all but our all was not enough to secure any accountability for the 96 unlawful deaths on British soil."

He said the scales of justice were "weighed against ordinary people" and called for Hillsborough Law to be introduced.

It would place a duty of candour on all public officials and require parity of legal funding for bereaved families and public bodies, he said.

Liverpool City Region metro mayor Steve Rotheram said the decision was a "stain on the judicial system" and "yet another kick in the teeth" for the families.

media caption"This is the angriest I've ever really felt"

Sue Hemming, from the CPS, said they were "right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster".

She said what had been heard in court would have been "surprising to many".

"That a publicly funded authority can lawfully withhold information from a public inquiry charged with finding out why 96 people died at a football match, in order to ensure that it never happened again - or that a solicitor can advise such a withholding, without sanction of any sort - may be a matter which should be subject to scrutiny."

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image captionFlowers and tributes were left at the Hillsborough Memorial after the collapse of the trial

Claire Bassett, from the IOPC, added: "Serious questions must remain over the public and moral duty of police in helping authorities to understand and prevent a further disaster like Hillsborough."

Mr Denton, 83, of Sheffield; Mr Foster, 74, of Harrogate; and Mr Metcalf, 71, of Ilkley, had all denied two counts of perverting the course of justice.

The three men were on trial at the Nightingale Court at the Lowry Theatre in Salford for more than four weeks.

Analysis

By Judith Moritz, BBC North of England correspondent

The collapse of this trial will anger and distress many of those who've spent 32 years campaigning for "Justice for the 96".

It's likely that it will mark the end of the legal road for them, which has been long and winding, with few ups and many downs.

In 2016 they celebrated the inquests verdicts which found that the 96 had been unlawfully killed, and that the fans were not to blame.

There were high hopes for accountability. But the match commander David Duckenfield was acquitted after two trials, and the collapse of this aftermath trial means that no one has been convicted for the alleged cover-up.

Over the last three decades there have been four trials, two sets of inquests, a public inquiry and several other investigations and reviews.

Despite all of those proceedings, it remains the case that the bereaved families feel let down by the system. They feel that they know the truth of what happened to their loved ones, but they haven't had justice.

Jonathan Goldberg QC, who represented Mr Metcalf, said "there was no cover-up at Hillsborough" and the three men had been exonerated by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in 1998.

"Despite this, the witch hunt has continued to resurrect the same tired accusations by prosecuting three old men," he said.

Mike Rainford, solicitor for Mr Denton, said the pain and suffering for the families was "unimaginable" but this trial "should never have taken place at all".

The ruling brought an end to the "myth of the Hillsborough cover-up once and for all", he said, after "years of lies, half-truths and rumours".

Mr Foster's solicitor Paul Harris said the trial had been a "shameful waste of public resources".

"This narrative of an alleged cover-up, when every document was meticulously preserved and maintained, was not borne out by the evidence," he said.

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image captionAndy Burnham, Margaret Aspinall and Steve Rotheram gave their reaction outside Anfield stadium

The Hillsborough inquests concluded in 2016 that the 96 football fans who died as a result of the crush were unlawfully killed.

The original inquests in 1991 had ruled the deaths were accidental but those conclusions were quashed following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel's damning report into the disaster.

Three other men were also charged in 2017 following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into allegations of a cover-up by police following the tragedy.

All charges against Sir Norman Bettison, who was accused of trying to blame Liverpool fans, were dropped in 2018.

Sheffield Wednesday's former club secretary Graham Mackrell was found guilty of a health and safety offence in May 2019.

The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was cleared of gross negligence manslaughter in November 2019.

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