Handing Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield responsibility for managing the “potentially lethal” stadium where dozens of football fans were crushed to death was like “giving a captain a sinking ship and seeing how well he can sail”, a court has been told.
Defence barrister Benjamin Myers said Duckenfield, who denies the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans, inherited various structural failings and capacity problems which contributed to the tragedy.
He said the stadium’s terraces were estimated to hold 30% more people than they actually could, and that the tragic events of April 15, 1989 were likely to happen at some point after a series of near misses which occurred before the disaster.
The barrister also told Preston Crown Court about reduced police manpower compared with the previous year’s semi-final fixture, and said it was “breathtakingly unfair” the retired South Yorkshire police chief superintendent had faced prosecution.
“He was doing his best in a situation which neither he nor anyone else was prepared for,” Myers said.
Duckenfield, 74, sat in the well of the court wearing a navy blue suit as his lawyer described him as “ageing and not in the best of health” and said he was being blamed for the failings of others.
But when beginning the summing up of the defence case on Friday, Myers told the jury the trial was one of the most heartbreaking to come before an English court.
“It is humbling to be speaking to you like this now,” he said.
“It is humbling because of the scale of the case and the scale of the loss.”
The defence told the court Duckenfield was an “excellent police officer” but was not a seasoned match commander, had limited experience of the Hillsborough stadium and had less than three weeks to prepare for the game after being promoted to the role.
“Someone needs to stand up for him. An ageing man, not in the best of health,” Myers said.
“It’s a strange world, the person you are invited to convict, a man who went to work to help people, whose final words in the safety briefing were to help keep the public safe and now he is accused of killing them.
“He was doing his best in a situation neither he nor anyone else was prepared for.
“He needs to be treated like any normal human being when you come to weigh this up.
“He was faced with something that no-one had foreseen, no-one had planned for and no-one could deal with.”
Myers urged the jury not to judge Duckenfield with hindsight and said convicting the retired police chief was not a way of marking sympathy for victims and their families.
The barrister added: “The sympathy in this case could not be higher.
“The trial is about something different. It is about whether David Duckenfield is criminally responsible for those deaths, so no matter how great that sympathy, convicting David Duckenfield as a way of expressing it would be very wrong indeed.”
He added: “You mustn’t judge with hindsight. This case is riddled with hindsight. The criticisms of Mr Duckenfield are based very heavily on what we can see with hindsight.
“The starting point is the stadium was potentially lethal. The system he’s working with is riddled with system faults.”
Some 95 supporters died following the crush in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace at the 1989 match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
Under the law at the time, there can be no prosecution for the 96th victim, Tony Bland, as he died more than a year and a day after the disaster.
The closing speeches of the defence case will continue on Monday.