Mackrell caught in Hillsborough net

On Wednesday 4th April, 2019, at shortly after 12.15pm, a jury of six men and six women trooped into Court 1 in Preston Crown Court for their final time.

They had been deliberating in the trial of Graham Mackrell and David Duckenfield for 29 hours and 6 mins. Aked for their verdicts, the jury foreman said his peers had failed to reach a verdict on count 1, gross negligence manslaughter, against Mr Duckenfield. For count 3, a health and safety breach by Mr Mackrell, a finding of guilty, by a majority verdict of 10 – 2. For count 2, another safety breach by Mr Mackrell, they had been directed by the judge, Sir Peter Openshaw DL, to return a verdict of not guilty. That formality was completed, before they were thanked ‘on behalf of the community‘ by the judge for their public service, and discharged.

The charges related to the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster which happened almost 30 years ago, when 96 Liverpool football supporters went to a football match and did not return. Mr Mackrell is the first person to be found guilty of any disciplinary, regulatory or criminal offence in the decades since that tragic day. He was the Sheffield Wednesday club secretary and, more crucially, their safety officer at the material time.

He will be sentenced by the judge on 9th May, 2019, after consideration of written submissions from both his own counsel, Jason Beer QC, and the Crown Prosecution Service’s leader, Richard Matthews QC.

The CPS has already indicated that they will seek a re-trial of Mr Duckenfield. Counsel for the defendant, Benjamin Myers QC, told the judge, at a short hearing which followed discharge of the jury, that he will apply to have such proceedings stayed as an abuse of process. A further hearing, to determine that stay application, is listed for 24th June, 2019, with a time estimate of 2 to 3 days.

Strict reporting restrictions remain in place in respect of the Duckenfield trial and its aftermath. This also impacts on the reporting of the Mackrell trial. Nothing can be said that prejudices any future trial of Mr Duckenfield, or another Hillsborough trial that involves three other defendants, Donald Denton, Alan Foster and Peter Metcalf, and is listed to begin in September, 2019. The first two named are retired South Yorkshire Police officers and Mr Metcalf was retained by the police as their civil litigation lawyer.

The proceedings against Graham Mackrell, still a leading light in football administration, after a glittering post-disaster career, began in Warrington Magistrates Court in July 2017. The first appearance at Preston Crown Court was in September, 2017 when he sat in the dock, along with five other men charged with a variety of offences arising from the disaster. Sir Norman Bettison was, subsequently, found to have no case to answer after the prosecution withdrew.

The substantive trial began on 14th January, 2019 in Preston. Mr Mackrell was allowed, by the judge, to sit in the well of the court, amongst his lawyers, throughout those proceedings. 

Mackrell, who did not give evidence during the trial, gave a no comment interview to Operation Resolve, a police led investigation, whose officers interviewed him in April 2017. He was charged two months later.

Shortly before he began summing up the trial, the judge had directed the jury not to draw adverse inference from the fact that Mackrell had chosen not to give evidence. It was found that none of the questions given to his lawyers, in an interview pre-brief, had made their way on to the indictment, as it then stood, nine weeks into the trial. One count had fallen away, and part of the second had decayed at that point.

No defence witnesses were called to give live evidence on Mackrell’s behalf. The court did hear read evidence from eight witnesses, of high standing in football and political spheres, who attested that the club secretary, a chartered accountant, was diligent and co-operative in that, and other footballing roles. No mention was made, by any, of how he carried out his job of safety officer. A point that would not have been lost on the jury.

The jury found him guilty of failing to take reasonable care of the safety of 10,100 spectators on the West Terrace of the Sheffield Wednesday stadium. A regular FA Cup semi-final venue, in spite of repeated incidents and complaints of crushing in that area. Most notably, in 1981 and 1987. Mackrell joined Sheffield Wednesday in December, 1986.

Only seven turnstiles were allocated to admit those spectators in that area in 1989 and, inevitably, a dangerous crush built up in the approach to the Leppings Lane entrance.

Eleven turnstiles had been in use for the same terraces in the 1988 semi-final match between the same two teams, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Nothing heard in evidence came close to explaining why Mr Mackrell did not challenge, in his role as the football club’s safety officer, the catastrophic change in turnstile arrangements. Instead, he relied on the more general proposition that he left such matters to the police to deal with in their operational order.

In that era, and the jury were directed to discount either the benefit of hindsight, or consideration of modern stadia and the policing of them, segretation of fans was a primary consideration to prevent hooliganism. The jury heard that led to the closing of turnstiles on the Penistone Road side of the stand to Liverpool fans in 1989. Access to the North Stand was funnelled through the Lepping Lane entrance, adding to the build up of Liverpool fans.

Throughout the trial, the jury did not see, or hear corroborated evidence of, one single incident of hooliganism, disorder or excessive drinking at that end of the ground.

The jury did see, however, graphic images and film of the developing crisis as the crowd built up from around 2.10pm. What is clear is that the jury rejected the submission of Mr Beer that the crowd arriving late was a more material factor than the number of turnstiles allocated. All the evidence heard, and the film and photographs viewed, concerning the charges against Mr Mackrell, pointed to the opposite: Fans arriving at the ground early – long before the invitation on the rear of their ticket stated – was a contributory factor in the disaster. He was directly responsible for the printing of those match day tickets. They stated on the rear that fans should be in the ground by 2.45pm. Fiteen minutes before kick off.  

Graham Henry Mackrell, by then a convicted criminal, was allowed to slip out of the back door of Preston Crown Court. An affront to open justice, the media who had waited for days at the front of the court, the public who were denied the opportunity of hearing what he had to say and, most crucially, the bereaved families and survivors who did not hear him offer contrition, or an apology.

Steve Kelly, who lost his brother Michael, told me that, in calmer waters than immediately after the verdicts, “I will support every bereaved family member, and survivor, who wants to see a re-trial go ahead – and in the meantime, continue to respect due process and try to ensure that nothing is done to prejudice any future Hillsborough trial”.

Jenni Hicks, who lost her teenaged daughters Sarah and Victoria, said, “We have been chasing rainbows for thirty years. But, of course, we cannot express fully how we feel until all the trials are over”.

Barry Devonside, who lost his 18 year old son Christopher, added, “As a magistrate for 20 years, I know how important it is for the integrity of the trial process to be preserved. But 96 people were found, unanimously, by an inquest jury, to be unlawfully killed and it is right that those responsible are held to account”.

Richie Greaves, who has campaigned tirelessly for almost 30 years on behalf of the survivors from pen 3 and 4, and the bereaved families, concluded, “The conviction of Mackrell is a step in the right direction, and I support the prosecution team, the families, and my fellow survivors, in aiming for a re-trial. Once all the trials are concluded, the Government is urged to fulfil their promises on the Hillsborough Law”.

Page last updated on Friday 5th April. 2019 at 1525hrs

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Picture credit:  Crown Prosecution Service

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