More than twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, thousands of soccer fans set out to enjoy an afternoon football match (i.e. soccer) between the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. A recent documentary airing on ESPN captures the chronology of the tragedy and its aftermath. Barely six minutes into the match it was stopped, and within hours ninety-six fans would be crushed to death, while more than seven hundred fifty fans were injured.
Despite early investigative findings which concluded that the failure of police control was primarily to blame for creating – and not relieving – the overcrowding scenario that led to the catastrophic loss of life and injury, it was ultimately determined by the lead coroner, who was reportedly influenced by forces supportive of the inadequately-prepared police, that each of the deaths was an accident. In initially making the determination that each death was accidental, accusations were leveled by the police against the victims at every stage in the investigation that the behavior of fans (labeled “hooliganism”) and their consumption of alcohol before the match somehow rationalized the police’s actions and inactions. The lead coroner went so far as to take blood alcohol samples from all victims (even the young deceased children) and also conducted criminal background checks on all victims of legal driving age in order to blame the victims and impugn their reputations. Ninety-six families lost spouses, parents, and children in this senseless tragedy and they wanted answers. Rather than getting the truth, however, they were forced to endure years of blame directed at their deceased loved ones while the police offered their carefully scripted self-serving accounts and conspired to cover-up their negligence and shortcomings.
The documentary captures the courage of the family members during their more than twenty-five year battle to uncover the truth. In September 2012, after years of advocating by relatives of the victims for a truly independent and new review, an independent review panel formed by the British government issued its report. During its independent review, the panel discovered that relevant information and key evidence had been intentionally altered, concealed, and covered up by police officials in the earlier investigations. In addition to being met with evasive and misleading accounts from police officials during the initial investigative phases, it was discovered more than twenty years after the incident that a majority of the written witness accounts from those very officers who were tasked with security and crowd control at the stadium had been intentionally altered to the point where relevant factual information about the tragic incident was deleted and withheld from investigators so that that all negative factual information about the police force was removed and so that negative information about the victims and the fans could be embellished and advanced.
Rather than sit idly by and allow the injustices to mount, the documentary details the courage and sheer determination of a number of relatives of the victims who refused to accept anything other than the truth. Ultimately, more than twenty-three years later, the independent panel uncovered the evidence that had been overlooked, altered, and concealed from earlier panels of investigators, and it was concluded that no fans were responsible for the disaster, but that a “lack of police control” was the main cause. The families of the victims and the victims themselves were finally vindicated after more than twenty years of injustices which were prompted by, influenced by, and dictated by the wrongdoers.
In this day and age of litigation where legitimate claims brought by legitimate victims are made against legitimately-blameworthy wrongdoers, corporations and their insurance companies, there is rarely an instance where accountability is admitted or accepted even when it is warranted. Like the victims and relatives of the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy, oftentimes those who are victimized by wrongdoers are met with aggressive opposition, a hide-the-ball defense mentality, and a blame-the-victim posture in order to avoid the truth. While this is not always the case, and while there are instances where a wrongdoer accepts accountability or raises legitimate legal defenses that can and should be raised, as well as instances where victims are not true victims or may not be truly innocent victims, most legal claims brought by victims of wrongdoing in this day and age require those individuals and their family members to show tremendous courage in the face of adversity in order to dig and fight for the truth. As lawyers and advocates for those who seek justice, and as victims who seek the truth, oftentimes while being blamed themselves or prevented from knowing the truth, the Hillsborough Tragedy should be a lesson to all of us that the courage to demand the truth and fight for justice, no matter how daunting the quest may be, is perhaps the essential element to achieving justice in the end.