Hillsborough: Anne Williams–A Real World Heroine
April 18, 2013
by Martin Odoni
The word ‘hero’ is much over-used these days, a word whose application and impact are greatly cheapened by being brandished on such meaningless figures as sports stars and actors. The word ‘heroine’ has not yet been cheapened so much; probably for reasons of unconscious sexism, most people in society associate heroics with males, especially two-dimensional males who are dressed in silly, vaguely effeminate costumes and have the words “POW!” and “SPLAT!” annotated over their image in comic books.
So, as this seems to be a time in history when the word ‘heroine’ can still have the impact it deserves, I wish to use it to pay tribute to a remarkable woman of unabashed courage, who yesterday succumbed cruelly to the scourge of cancer before she could see the rewards her fortitude deserved.
Anne Williams, for those who do not know, was the mother of Kevin Williams, who was one of ‘The 96’. Which is to say that Kevin, at the age of just fifteen, was one of ninety-six people to die as a direct result of the calamitous crush at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield in 1989. (The number who died as an indirect result of it, say from post-traumatic stress, is not clear, but we do know that it’s too many.) A little under two years after the Disaster, a Coroner’s Inquest was performed in Sheffield. It ruled that all the victims had died of the same cause; traumatic asphyxia, inevitably leading to death within four-to-six minutes of the victim’s airway closing. The Inquest also ruled that all the victims were beyond saving by 3:15pm on the day, and so no evidence from after that time was accepted or analysed at the hearings.
Anne was mystified and appalled at such rulings. She had strong reason to believe that Kevin was still alive as late as 4pm; if we are to accept the notion of death being inevitable within six minutes of the 3:15pm ‘cut-off’ time, all victims would surely have been dead by 3:21pm. But verbal evidence given by several witnesses, most notably Special Constable Debra Martin of the South Yorkshire Police, indicated that they had seen Kevin still alive, and even speaking (albeit incoherently), at the turn of the following hour.
At the Inquest, the West District Coroner for South Yorkshire, Stefan Popper, would have none of it. It is clear from transcripts of the court proceedings and correspondence with members of the West Midlands Police and his legal peers that he had, for whatever reason, premeditated the outcome. By quite explicitly declaring that all the victims were sure to die by 3:15pm, he had decided in advance what the cause of death was in all ninety-six cases, and barred exploration of all avenues that might have led to a different conclusion. This of course meant the outcome was entirely dependent on his own untested assumptions, and so defeated the object of holding an Inquest in the first place.
The verdict of the Inquests was Accidental Death, instead of the hoped-for ruling of Unlawfully Killed, or even Accidental Death Aggravated By Lack Of Care. The bereaved families were devastated that the state was effectively rejecting that the deaths were the by-product of its own failures, and that it would not allow any attempt to demonstrate those failures. It later emerged that Debra Martin had been one of a number of witnesses who had been pressured by the West Midlands Police into changing their statements.
Anne rejected the death certificate issued and, along with fellow members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, lodged an appeal to have the Inquest verdict overturned. The appeal was turned down in 1994.
Again frustrated, but nothing daunted, Anne appealed again within a year, this time through the office of the Attorney General. Again, the appeal was rejected. Anne’s son had been dead for six years now, and not one responsible party had faced prosecution for the Hillsborough Disaster. There was not the barest sign of Anne, or any of the other bereaved families, receiving justice, or even genuine acknowledgement of the debt the British legal establishment owed them. Around the country, the majority false impression was still that the Liverpool supporters themselves were the ones to blame for the Disaster, and there was an almost complete lack of sympathy in most of the media.
Most people in such a position would surely have just decided by this point to accept that the ceiling was caving in on them. But not the Hillsborough families, and least of all Anne Williams. In 1997, at the behest of the newly-elected Labour Government, the HFSG attended an unofficial ‘Scrutiny Of Evidence’ enacted by Lord Justice Murray Stuart-Smith. With no cross-examination of evidence or witnesses allowed, and a needlessly narrow scope that barred re-analysis of evidence submitted to previous investigations, the ‘Scrutiny’ proved to be another empty gesture, a process largely designed to keep the full truth quiet while giving the appearance of thoroughness. Sure enough, early in 1998, Stuart-Smith reported that he could find no evidence to merit a renewed Inquest or Inquiry. Another wall for the families’ foreheads to collide with. For Anne Williams, after nine years she had found nothing but maddening resistance from the British legal system to the evidence she had that her son’s Inquest had been inherently flawed.
During this period, to add to her pain, she and a number of the families had a falling-out with the HFSG. Anne had been personally treated with real harshness by the Group’s chairman, Trevor Hicks, who terminated her membership for supposed ‘self-interest’. The Group began to fracture under the strain of growing infighting, until a secondary faction split off to form the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. Anne herself would become its chairman for a time.
In 1999 – ten years after Kevin had died – the bereaved families were preparing for what looked like being the final roll-of-the-dice, a Private Prosecution against the police officers in charge of the matchday operation on the day of the Disaster. At the same time, Anne wrote a book detailing the full story of her decade of heartache and frustration, titled, When You Walk Through The Storm: The Hillsborough Disaster And One Mother’s Quest For Justice. It was a soul-destroying account of her and Kevin’s story, conveying the heartlessness of British law, and the intimidating odds that Anne had had to face down. And yet it was also a story filled with hope. Her tale of, in effect, becoming a private detective to track down the witnesses and medical experts who could contradict the Inquest verdict, as well as studying to become a learned expert on the intricacies of the law, showed her to possess a shrewd mind – perhaps without even realising it. But more even than that, what always came across stridently on every page was that it was written by an author who, no matter how hard she had been bitten, had lost not a jot of her determination to win justice for her son. She had faced setback after slap-in-the-face after blind alley, and yet she gave no doubt that she would persevere.
A year on, the Private Prosecution again ended in favour of the establishment; the jury acquitted former Superintendent Bernard Murray, once of the South Yorkshire Police, of two counts of manslaughter, and was unable to reach a verdict on charges against former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield – the notorious match commander who had made the fateful decision to open an outer exit gate without first sealing off access to enclosures that were already full. Lord Justice Hooper, presiding over the trial, ruled that Duckenfield could not be re-tried over the Hillsborough Disaster. Another door slammed shut in the faces of Anne and her fellows. Eleven years of determined struggle, a marathon of legal avenues pursued, and it had resulted in no accountability or acknowledgement at all by the British legal establishment. Although since 1996, Jimmy McGovern’s ITV docu-drama, Hillsborough, had started to correct the urban mythology surrounding the Disaster, the lack of formal acceptance by, and prosecutions of, the South Yorkshire Police continued to colour perceptions of what had happened, while formalising the unspoken idea that the victims were in some way ‘expendable’.
Once again, Anne could not accept that. She would fight on. Over the next few years she pieced together more new evidence, and in 2005 she made a fresh submission to the Attorney General’s office. Again, her appeal was rejected. Her son had been lost to her for some sixteen years, and still nobody had ever been held to account for his death. The following year, Anne withdrew from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to form a smaller campaign called Hope For Hillsborough, allowing her to focus exclusively on pursuing what she probably thought was her absolutely final legal avenue; she would take her son’s case to the European Court Of Human Rights, on the grounds that the flaws in the Inquest had robbed Kevin of the right to a fair trial. It was an imaginative, clever interpretation of Habeas Corpus, an Act of law that was invented to protect the accused rather than the victim. It was brave, it was determined, it was clever, and it was futile. The European Court turned her appeal down in March 2009, stating that the time period in which to make her challenge had expired many years earlier. Anne’s long-suffering comment afterwards remained defiant, while hinting at the familiar obstacles presented by legal minutiae. “I am used to the setbacks now. Interestingly, they have not refused me because I am not right, it was because of timing… A while ago, I was going to stop fighting, but now I have decided to carry on.”
Is it not amazing? By this point, twenty years had passed since Kevin had been taken from her at Hillsborough. He would have been in his mid-30’s by then had he lived, and Anne had been brushed aside again and again in her bids to bring him justice. She had now taken her case to Europe, and been rebuffed again. At this point, almost anybody would surely have just accepted that it would never happen, and nobody would blame them for it. And yet still Anne Williams would not give up, because she knew the truth had been concealed, and she knew there had been an injustice against her son. For sure, anybody would have told her, if she cared to ask, that she had already done more for her son’s memory than could ever be demanded of her. But still to her, knowing she had tried would never be enough on its own, not so long as she could carry on, and so long as Kevin was still denied justice.
Ignorant naysayers have growled at Hillsborough campaigners down the years, “Oh will you people ever get over it?” as though their persistence is a sign of weakness. All the bereaved families have shown this to be untrue to differing degrees – the fact that they have fought on in the face of intimidating legal machinery, media hostility and public indifference speaks of courage rather than mawkishness – but Anne Williams’ story perhaps most of all resonates with – here comes that word – heroism. She remained conscious at all times that being repeatedly denied was not her failure, it was a failure of the state. The only failure she could be guilty of was to stop trying, to be cowed or intimidated, and she just would not let that happen.
With the release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in September 2012, at long last, Anne Williams – and her son – received half the reward they were due, when it revealed the chilling truth of what happened at Hillsborough, and the even uglier truth of what followed. At last, the Liverpool supporters were completely exonerated, those who were truly responsible for what happened were firmly exposed, and the attempt to hide that responsibility was unambiguously revealed. And above all, it was finally confirmed, exactly as Anne had always protested, that the Coroner’s Inquest had been intrinsically flawed, and had reached an erroneous conclusion. At least forty-one – yes, forty-one – of the victims, perhaps as many as fifty-eight, had still had the potential to survive after 3:15pm on the day – maybe if there had been a more appropriate emergency response. And yes, Kevin Williams was one of those victims who might still have been saved.
But revealing the truth was, as I say, only half the reward. It was not enough on its own to bring justice. That could only follow when the consequences of the cover-up were reversed. For a start, the Inquest verdicts might finally be quashed, but that would still take several months thanks to the aforementioned obstacles of legal minutiae. And in the meantime, there came yet another new bombshell from an unexpected angle. In October, Anne Williams announced that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hillsborough campaigners all over the country, many of whom had been fighting her corner for years, were devastated. After everything that had happened, after the years and strength she had invested in the campaign, after Anne had finally found the breakthrough she had waited over two decades for, this news sounded like nothing short of a crime. Theft. Fate had found a new way to steal the boon from her.
Thankfully, she at least lived long enough to see the flawed Inquest verdicts overturned shortly before Christmas, and with them the last vestiges of the cover-up were swept away. There was no mistaking the joy on her face as she was interviewed by television reporters outside the High Court in London. It was also heartening that she got to attend the first annual Hillsborough Memorial service to be held following the Report’s publication.
But still, just a few days later, she was taken from the world, and even though she saw the injustice reversed, she can now never see justice served. It is a national indictment that, even though it is finally heading in the right direction, British justice has still failed her completely. How much the strain of fighting the system might have played in her illness, I do not care to speculate on, but it would not surprise me if it played a role. If so, it would be no exaggeration to say that she died for justice, a justice that she did not get to see. That is the epitome of a heroine.
Margaret Thatcher died a little over a week earlier, and the Conservative Party fought tooth, nail, claw and talon to get her a state funeral (in all-but-name anyway). Why? Because she ‘saved the country’, so they claimed. It sounds very heroic, put that way.
Anne Williams actually fought the country, stared down its heartless, bludgeoning legal mechanisms, exposed a sinister, corrupt element in the way it was policed, and revealed to it some unsettling truths about itself. She took up such a daunting, unequal struggle for nearly a quarter-of-a-century. And she won. That doesn’t just sound heroic. It was heroic. I would be amazed if there were any national tribute to her of any description from the direction of the state, because she wasn’t a politician, and she wasn’t rich, and she didn’t go to one of ‘the’ schools.
But surely that makes her achievements all the more impressive. I don’t care what the ‘traditional’ criteria are, she deserves real recognition. If she could not see justice in life, the country owes her recognition in death. Recognition of what was taken from her in 1989, and recognition of the untold fortitude she displayed to win redress for her son.
The real world does not need comic book heroes. The real world has – or at least had – a heroine of a far likelier kind. A figure so familiar to us we have almost stopped appreciating the remarkable feats she is capable of.
A mother fighting for her child.
Last night, on the annual BBC Sports Personality Of The Year show, Anne posthumously received the Helen Rollason Award, for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity. Rollason was a BBC sports presenter who, like Anne Williams interestingly enough, succumbed to cancer ahead of her time. During her declining years, Rollason helped raise over five million pounds to set up a cancer wing at North Middlesex Hospital.
It is no state funeral of course, but this award means that at least Anne Williams has finally received some form of national recognition. It is the barest minimum that her country owes her, after so many years of letting her down.
Other articles about the Hillsborough Disaster; –