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Hillsborough disaster trial collapses as judge rules no case to answer

The trial of two retired police officers and a solicitor accused of perverting the course of justice following the Hillsborough disaster has collapsed after the judge ruled there was no case to answer.

Retired South Yorkshire Police officers Donald Denton, 83, and Alan Foster, 74, and the force’s former solicitor Peter Metcalf, 71, have all been acquitted.

The three men were each accused of two counts of doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice.

It was alleged they were involved in a process of amending officers’ statements to minimise the blame on South Yorkshire Police following the disaster at the FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

The ruling was handed down at the Nightingale court at the Lowry theatre in Salford on Wednesday.

Judge Mr Justice William Davis said the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor, but that was not a course of public justice.

He concluded there was no case fit for consideration by the jury based on any of the six counts on the indictment.

In the ruling, he said: "I repeat my observation about the anxiety and distress being felt by the families of those affected by the Hillsborough disaster.

"These proceedings have been very drawn-out following a lengthy trial process involving the match commander.

"I know the strength of feeling there was after his acquittal. I am aware that these proceedings also have been observed with interest.

"However, whatever the anxiety and distress, I have to determine whether there is evidence to support the particular criminal offence with which these defendants have been charged.

"In concluding that there is not, that is all I do."

The trial had heard statements were amended to remove criticism of the force.

But expert witness Sir Robert Francis QC told the jury there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.

Mr Denton, Mr Metcalf and Mr Foster were 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.

Sir Norman Bettison, a chief inspector in 1989 who went on to become chief constable of Merseyside and West Yorkshire, was charged with misconduct in a public office as part of the investigation but the charges were dropped in August 2018.

After today’s acquittal, Sue Hemming, director of legal services at the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS), said: "It is crucial that we presented the evidence gathered by the IOPC investigation teams to a court and we have worked tirelessly to prepare the case for the jury to understand this evidence and any implications resulting from the amended statements.

"After long and incredibly careful consideration, especially for the families involved, we decided not to appeal the ruling.

"The CPS was right to bring this case and for a court to hear the evidence of what happened in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster."

She added: "Throughout, we have kept in regular contact with bereaved families and I fully appreciate how disappointing this outcome will be for them."

Speaking outside court, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who has campaigned on behalf of victims’ families, said the verdict had left them feeling "empty".

Analysis: Trial collapse means nobody will be held criminally responsible

By Tom Parmenter, North of England Correspondent

The collapse of this trial brings to an end the criminal investigations around the UK’s worst sporting disaster.

The 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed – that was finally established in 2016 – but the way the men, women and children who died that day were characterised and the lies that were told have caused decades of suffering.

For many relatives, the quest for justice has been the fight of their lives.

Many haven’t lived to see the fight through.

This trial, of three men who worked for South Yorkshire Police, has been described by the authorities as the final criminal trial.

Inevitably, with 96 families involved, there have been many different views on what justice looked like.

The various reviews, inquiries, inquests and criminal trials have allowed the record to be set straight – to establish that the fans were not to blame for the disaster.

For some families, that has been enough to move on – for others, nobody has been held to account.

For them, that falls well short of "justice for the 96".

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