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Hillsborough judge accused of sympathy for defendant

Tragic toll: The 96 victims who died after crush behind barriers at FA Cup match PICTURES: PA

FAMILIES of the 96 Hillsborough victims responded with tears and anger as the police commander blamed for the 1989 disaster was cleared yesterday.

There were gasps in court as David Duckenfield was acquitted of the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 of the football supporters who died.

The officer had admitted lying by denying he gave the order to let Liverpool fans in through exits to the stand at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium where victims were crushed to death. Campaigners said justice was still being denied to the 96, including Tony Bland, whose death could not be added to the charges because he spent years in a coma as a result of his injuries.

Hid truth: Mr Duckenfield at first Hillsborough inquiry in May 1989

After Mr Duckenfield was cleared in a majority jury verdict, relatives protested that someone must be to blame because an inquest found the fans were unlawfully killed. Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died aged 18, said at a news conference: ‘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?’

Christine Burke, whose dad Henry died, asked judge Sir Peter Openshaw in court: ‘With all due respect, my lord, 96 people were found unlawfully killed to a criminal standard. I would like to know who is responsible for my father’s death because someone is.’

The victims, 95 Liverpool supporters and a Tottenham Hotspur fan attending with friends, were crushed at the FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest. The game, hosted at a neutral venue in keeping with Cup tradition, was abandoned after just seven minutes as the disaster unfolded in the Leppings Lane stand.

Mr Duckenfield had asked for exit gates to be opened to ease overcrowding outside. About 2,000 fans then poured into the terrace where victims were crushed behind barriers fencing them off from the pitch.

Mr Duckenfield, who was the match commander, claimed the gates had been forced open. Only in 2015, at the inquest, did he admit that he had lied.

Crush: Fans are pulled up to safety PICTURE: PA

At the trial, Sir Peter said jurors should not think badly of Mr Duckenfield, 72, because of his impassive manner in court, explaining that it was linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. That led Ms Aspinall, who chairs the Hillsborough Family Support Group, to raise concerns with the judge about his ‘personal sympathy for the defendant’.

She mentioned that Sir Peter had said ‘poor chap’ when Mr Duckenfield was absent one day through illness.

Mr Duckenfield’s solicitor Ian Lewis said the officer was relieved but his thoughts were with the families of those who died. He and his wife Ann have faced violent threats, said his barrister Benjamin Myers.