Duckenfield admitted trying to blame fans for Hillsborough, court told

David Conn
Photograph: Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images

The South Yorkshire police officer in command at Hillsborough in 1989, when a crush resulted in the deaths of 96 people, admitted at the subsequent public inquiry that he did not tell the truth about the disaster, falsely blaming Liverpool football club supporters for forcing a gate open, a court has heard.

David Duckenfield, then a newly promoted chief superintendent in charge of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989, made that admission in May 1989 and apologised at the official inquiry presided over by Lord Justice Taylor. Duckenfield acknowledged that he had “withheld” the truth – that he had ordered a large exit gate to be opened to alleviate a crush outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles and allow a large number of people through – from everybody at the stadium, including his own senior officer, assistant chief constable Walter Jackson.

The jury has heard that about 2,000 people came through the opened gate C, and many went down a tunnel facing them, into the central “pens” 3 and 4 of the Leppings Lane terrace at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground, where the lethal crush developed.

Duckenfield’s evidence to the Taylor inquiry was read to the jury at his trial at Preston crown court, where he is charged with gross negligence manslaughter of 95 of those who died as a result of the crush.

The Football Association’s then head of external affairs, Glen Kirton, told the jury on Wednesday that, as the disaster was unfolding, at 3.15pm Duckenfield had told Graham Kelly, the FA’s chief executive, that Liverpool supporters had “forced” a gate open, and there had been an “inrush of spectators”.

Questioned at the Taylor inquiry by Michel Kallipetis QC, representing Trent regional health authority, Duckenfield said of his conversation with Kelly that his “initial perception was accurate” but he acknowledged that he did not tell Kelly that he had given authority for gates to be opened.

“I may have misled Mr Kelly,” Duckenfield accepted.

“What you said was not true?” Kallipetis asked.

“In the final assumption that I had opened the gate, no,” Duckenfield replied.

“What you said was not true?”

“If I said it. No, sir, it was not.”

Questioned further at the Taylor inquiry by Edwin Glasgow QC, representing Sheffield Wednesday, Duckenfield acknowledged he had not told the truth to club officials when he went to meet them in the boardroom after the conversation with Kelly.

“It is right to say, isn’t it, that when you decided to withhold the information – that the decision to let people into the ground had been a police one – you withheld that information from everybody on the afternoon in question?” Glasgow asked.

“Yes, sir,” Duckenfield replied.

“You persisted in that throughout the afternoon?”

“There was good reason, sir, not to tell the crowd what had occurred,” Duckenfield replied. He subsequently explained that he feared the crowd could erupt into “massive disorder” if they learned that the gates had been opened by police officers.

“Was there good reason not to tell my clients, the officers of the club?” Glasgow asked.

“I felt so, sir, at the time.”

Glasgow challenged Duckenfield as to why he had not told the truth to Jackson, the assistant chief constable. Jackson was at the match in civilian clothes and went to the police control box to find out what was happening, when he became concerned at the developing crisis in the Leppings Lane pens.

“At that stage, of course, you already knew what the cause had been?” Glasgow asked Duckenfield.

“Yes sir,” Duckenfield replied.

“Well, Mr Duckenfield, let me help you. [Jackson] went with you to the boardroom to see the directors and he stood by in that boardroom, unaware of the fact that you were not telling my clients the truth, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sir,” said Duckenfield.

“Chief superintendent, would it at least be right to say that you decided to withhold information from my clients, who were responsible in that ground, in the presence of the assistant chief constable?”

“Sir, you are correct.”

William Woodward QC, representing South Yorkshire police at the Taylor inquiry, later asked Duckenfield: “Is this right, that insofar as you have been responsible for any misunderstanding or misleading, you unreservedly withdraw and apologise?”

“I do sir,” Duckenfield replied.

Woodward asked Duckenfield about his rationale for not telling the truth: “I am wondering why you thought it would be less likely to lead to disorder to tell the true position than to imply that it was the fault of the fans. Some might say or might think that would be more likely to create disorder?”

Duckenfield replied: “Sir, with hindsight today we can all look differently at that situation. I acted as I believed to be correct in a crisis moment.”

Duckenfield has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter. The trial continues.