The case against Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield is “breathtakingly unfair”, his barrister has told a court.
Benjamin Myers, defending Duckenfield, addressed the jury at Preston Crown Court in his closing speech on Friday.
The retired South Yorkshire police chief superintendent, who sat in the well of the court wearing a navy blue suit, denies the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans who died at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989.
Mr Myers said the case was characterised by two aspects, the first that it “must be one of the most heartbreaking cases ever to come before an English court”.
“It is humbling to be speaking to you like this now,” he said.
“It’s humbling because of the scale of the case and the scale of the loss.”
He added: “We say the second aspect of this case, that goes to the very core of this … is a breathtakingly unfair prosecution case.”
He said Duckenfield, 74, who he described as “ageing and not in the best of health”, was being blamed for the failings of others.
Mr Myers said the capacity of the west terrace of the stadium, where the fatal crush happened, was overestimated and should have been reduced following alterations.
But, he said none of those features were Duckenfield’s doing.
He said: “Whatever he did, or did not, do, he is taking responsibility in this prosecution, you are being invited to give him criminal responsibility for a decade of incompetence on the part of others.”
Mr Myers also described a reduction of police manpower compared to the previous year’s semi-final and problems with the police radios.
He said Duckenfield was an “excellent police officer” but was not experienced as a match commander, with limited experience of Hillsborough and had less than three weeks to prepare for the game after being promoted to the role.
He said if it was Duckenfield’s fault, he would be being held criminally responsible for the faults of others and events which were “cold twists of fate”.
Mr Myers told the court the prosecution relied on evidence Duckenfield gave to inquests in 2015 when he was questioned over a “gruelling” seven days and on evidence from former Arsenal match commander Douglas Hopkins, who Mr Myers described as “not really such an expert after all”.
The barrister said the “only person” who had “spotted everything was wrong” was Mr Hopkins, a man who “came along 24 years later”.
Mr Myers continued: “Someone needs to stand up for him. An ageing man, not in the best of health.
“It’s a strange world, the person you are invited to convict, a man who went to wok to help people, whose final words in the safety briefing were to help keep the public safe and now he’s accused of killing them.
“He was doing his best in a situation where neither he nor anyone else was prepared for.
“Until this happened he was a man who was well regarded, from a different generation to many of us.
“He sits looking like a chief superintendent of that generation might look.
“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.”
Mr Myers told jurors that convicting Duckenfield was “no way” of marking the understandable sympathy they have for the victims and their families.
“But the trial is not what that’s for,” Mr Myers 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 cited the evidence of earlier witnesses – that the stadium was a disaster waiting to happen and that Duckenfield should not have been put in that position, as an inexperience match commander with an “impossible learning curve”.
Mr Myers contrasted the rewinding and reviewing of the footage during the trial and the calling of expert witnesses to pore over aspects of the evidence, with the defendant’s experience of the disaster.
“He got one go, a crucial period, lasting 15 minutes. Gone.
“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.”
The trial was adjourned until later on Friday.