LONDON — British prosecutors announced Wednesday criminal charges against six people — including a former police chief — in a 1989 soccer stadium disaster that claimed 96 lives and left their families in a nearly three-decade struggle over who was to blame.
The Hillsborough Stadium disaster is one of the world’s worst sports-related disasters and still looms large in British consciousness during a long and tangled legal reckoning.
The latest twist comes five years after the overturning of a ruling that declared the deaths accidental. Also in 2012, an independent panel issued findings saying the police had made “strenuous attempts” to deflect blame of the deaths onto fans.
Then last year, a new inquest concluded the 96 had been “unlawfully killed” — setting up potential cases against authorities for possible security lapses and other charges.
“I have decided that there is sufficient evidence to charge six individuals with criminal offenses,” Sue Hemming, head of the special crime and counterterrorism division at the Crown Prosecution Service, said in a statement.
During a soccer match in Sheffield in northern England, fans flooded into an already full section of the stadium, leaving many trampled or crushed against metal fences. Immediately following the incident, visiting Liverpool fans were blamed for disaster, something their families adamantly denied.
For 28 years, victims’ families have fought a campaign to clear their loved ones of any blame.
They were told privately of the state’s decision to press charges Wednesday and reportedly hugged each other upon hearing the news.
The new proceedings come as Britain deals with the aftermath of another tragedy involving mass casualties — this time from a deadly fire in a London tower block, where at least 79 people died. Victims and their families also are demanding justice.
Police have said they are considering manslaughter charges over the Grenfell Tower fire, but they have not said whom they might charge.
In the Hillsborough tragedy, David Duckenfield, a former police chief superintendent who was in charge on the day of the disaster, was charged with the “manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 men, women and children.”
He is not being charged with the death of the 96th victim because he died four years after the disaster, prosecutors said.
“We will allege that David Duckenfield’s failures to discharge his personal responsibility were extraordinarily bad and contributed substantially to the deaths of each of those 96 people who so tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives,” said Hemming.
Norman Bettison, a former police chief constable, was charged with offenses relating to alleged lies about his involvement in the aftermath of the disaster and the culpability of fans.
“Given his role as a senior police officer, we will ask the jury to find that this was misconduct of such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the officeholder,” said Hemming.
In addition, two other ex-police officers, a lawyer, and a club secretary and safety officer who worked at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium were also charged.
Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the tragedy, told reporters Wednesday that the long battle fought by the families proved that “things can change, and things must change, and this must never happen again.”