Former police chief Sir Norman Bettison will not be prosecuted over alleged lies he told following the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool football supporters died.
The former Merseyside and West Yorkshire chief constable had been charged with four counts of misconduct in a public office, all relating to alleged lies he told about his role in the aftermath of the 1989 tragedy.
Sir Norman, 62, who was a chief inspector at the time of the tragedy at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989, had been due to face trial next year.
He was accused of untruthfully describing his role in the South Yorkshire Police response as “peripheral” in a comment to then chief inspector of constabulary Sir David O’Dowd, in 1998, when Sir Norman applied for the job of chief constable in Merseyside.
He was also accused of lying to Merseyside Police Authority when he said he had never attempted to shift blame for the disaster “on to the shoulders of Liverpool supporters”.
But at a Preston Crown Court hearing before judge Sir Peter Openshaw on Tuesday, Sarah Whitehouse QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said the misconduct proceedings would be discontinued.
Sir Norman, of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, was alleged to have lied in a statement issued on September 13 2012, following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, when he said he had never offered any interpretation other than that the behaviour of Liverpool fans did not cause the disaster.
He was also accused of misconduct over a a statement released the following day in which he said he had never “besmirched” Liverpool fans.
Sir Norman was charged after the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) carried out the biggest criminal investigation into alleged police misconduct ever carried out in England and Wales.
Five other men, including Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield, are due to face trial for offences related to the disaster next year.
Speaking on the court steps, Sir Norman said: “The loss of loved ones who will never come home from Hillsborough is an enduring tragedy.
“Such a devastating loss is deserving of all of our sympathies and has always included mine.
“Nothing, over the last six years, has diminished my sympathy.
“My involvement in the events around Hillsborough has often been misrepresented, even in Parliament.
“Since then, I have been forced to deny, strenuously, that I was guilty of any wrongdoing in the aftermath of the disaster.
“Today’s outcome vindicates that position.”
Speaking outside court, Steve Kelly, whose brother Michael died in the disaster, said: “I’m absolutely devastated. I feel as if I’ve been beaten up this morning.
“The feeling is just unbelievable. I feel as though we are treading water a little bit. We have tread water before and we will push on.
“We’ve got good people behind us, we’ve got good support and we’ve got God on our side.”
Under the victims’ right of review process, those with a “significant” interest in the case have three months to seek a review of the decision to discontinue the prosecution.
Lou Brookes, whose brother Andrew was one of the 96 victims, said she would be calling for such action.
She added: “I’m not shocked, I totally expected it and predicted it. I have no faith and no trust or confidence in the CPS, the IPCC and Operation Resolve.
“They have not just let the families down, they have let the 96 down.”
Responding to the news, north west Labour politicians Steve Rotheram, Andy Burnham, Maria Eagle, Alison McGovern and Derek Twigg said they would support the families in seeking a review.
“As long-standing supporters of the campaign for justice, our thoughts today are with the bereaved families and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster, still re-living that day and its aftermath almost 30 years on. We will continue to support them in any way we can,” they added.
Earlier, prosecutor Sarah Whitehouse QC, explained at length why the charges had been discontinued.
She told the court that since the defendant was charged in June of last year, the “state of the evidence has changed”.
She said one of the two witnesses the Crown relied on for three of the charges, relating to statements Sir Norman allegedly made blaming Liverpool fans for the disaster, had since died and “significant contradictions” had come to light in the accounts given by the other witness.
Whitehouse said the CPS had a duty to review the evidence and the decision was reached there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.
She added the remaining charge related to Sir Norman’s alleged use of the word, “peripheral” in describing his role in the South Yorkshire Police response, when he applied for the job of Chief Constable of Merseyside Police in 1998, which had now been “partly retracted” by one witness.
The prosecutor said all four of the counts were part of a “narrative” of a “pattern of behaviour” but because the other three counts had been dropped, the “thread has been lost”.
She added: “The prosecution case reduced to interpreting the use of a single word 20 years or so ago, elements of this charge can no longer be proved to the high criminal standard.
“Decisions such as these are never taken by one person alone. They are taken after discussion and consideration by a number of experienced lawyers.
“The same conclusion reached in this case is that the charges should be discontinued.”
Sue Hemming, CPS director of legal services, said in a statement: “The CPS has a duty to keep all cases under continuing review. Since the original decision to charge Norman Bettison in June 2017, there have been a number of significant developments which have affected the available evidence.”
Hemming said she appreciated the news would be “disappointing” for families and promised to meet them in person to explain the decision.
She added: “I would remind all concerned that although criminal proceedings are no longer active against Norman Bettison, there are five other defendants facing charges relating to Hillsborough and each has the right to a fair trial. It is therefore extremely important that there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information which could in any way prejudice those proceedings.”
‘An innocent man’
Paul Greaney QC, defending Sir Norman, said he was an “innocent man” and that there had been “political interference”. He criticised MP Maria Eagle and investigators.
Greaney said it was necessary to comment so the public “have a clear and balanced understanding” of the case.
He said: “The first and starting point is that, contrary to public understanding, there has never been any suggestion in this failed prosecution that Sir Norman Bettison took part in a cover-up.
“The false understanding that he did so has been fostered, not by the prosecution, but by political figures.
“In 1998 and again in 2012, Maria Eagle MP asserted under cover of Parliamentary Privilege that Sir Norman had been part of a unit that orchestrated a black propaganda campaign to deflect blame for the Hillsborough Disaster from South Yorkshire Police on to the fans of Liverpool Football Club.
“That claim, which Maria Eagle has not been prepared to repeat outside Parliament, is untrue. ”
Greaney said the second principal case against his client was that he had blamed Liverpool fans for the disaster.
He added: “The case for Sir Norman was that he has never blamed the Liverpool fans; indeed his position is that, on the contrary, he has always acknowledged that responsibility for the disaster rests with South Yorkshire Police.”
The court head the prosecution relied upon two witnesses, Mark Ellaby and a woman identified only as Mrs J.
It was alleged by Mr Ellaby that over a pint in a pub while on an MBA course together in 1989, Sir Norman said he had been appointed to a team, the role of which was to blame the fans.
Greaney said it took “repeated requests” from the defence for the other students to be traced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
When “eventually” they were, 15 other students and a lecturer were contacted and “not a single one” recalled Sir Norman expressing any “inappropriate view” about Hillsborough.
The other witness, Mrs J, who is now aged 85, had given different accounts with major inconsistencies of what Sir Norman is alleged to have told her.
On the charge relating to Bettison’s application for the Merseyside Police job, Greaney said the prosecution had attempted to replace Count 1 with Count 1A, which again focussed on Sir Norman’s use of the word “peripheral” – this time in a statement he made to the Merseyside Police Authority.
He added: “We do not know why that attempt was made, but we do know that the IPCC was put under considerable political pressure to place the ‘peripheral’ issue at the heart of its investigation.”
Concluding his remarks, Greaney added: “The decision that has been made today reflects a recognition that a trial would not result in Sir Norman being convicted of any offence.
“That is for the simple reason that the evidence would not support a conviction. And that, in turn, is for the simple reason that he is in fact innocent.
“Finally, we must make plain that in what we have had to say, we have not intended to criticise prosecuting counsel or the reviewing lawyer.
“In the decision they have announced today, they have maintained their independence, notwithstanding the naked political interference that recently disclosed documents demonstrates to have occurred.”