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A watershed moment for Britain, a glimmer of hope for a family bereft

2011 May 19
by Paul Vallely

The announcement that two men are, at last, to stand trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence is more than just a dramatic development in an 18-year-long murder case. It is a watershed in both race relations and criminal justice in contemporary Britain.

The young A-level student, who died after a racist attack at a bus stop in south London in 1993, had hoped to make his mark on the world as an architect. He could little have imagined that he would be responsible for a revolution attitudes and for a change in the law which scrapped the centuries-old principle of “double jeopardy” which said that a person could not be tried twice for the same crime. That change has brought one of the two men previously charged with his murder back into the dock.

More even than that, the repercussions of Stephen’s cruel death rippled through British society showing – through films, plays, music, the media and wider public opinion – a new recognition of the need to re-establish trust between minority ethnic communities and the rest of society.

Few could have thought all that would issue from a mindless attack one quiet April night in Eltham when – as two Appeal Court judges yesterday put it – a “young black man of great promise” was killed “just because of the colour of his skin”.

That death caused huge disquiet because of the allegations which immediately arose that the authorities bungled the handling of the case because of inherent police racism. The nation was shocked when Doreen Lawrence, the dead boy’s mother, and a special needs teacher, asserted that the officers called to the scene had not tended her dying son because they  “did not want to get their hands dirty with a black man’s blood”. The words electrified British society.

Credence was added to her accusation by the police’s apparent focus, not on the names of the alleged attackers given to them by local people, but on the principal witness Duwayne Brooks, the Lawrence family and Stephen himself. The discrepancy was underlined when we learned that Stephen, trusting and good-natured, had been a model youth whose life was centred around his education and religious faith. Born into a hard-working family who had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s, Stephen was doing well – studying A-levels in English, craft, design and technology and physics. He had already been offered a job by a firm of local architects.

The ramifications of his murder continued for almost two decades in a series of twists and turns. In 1996, following the failure of the police to bring anyone to court,  Stephen’s parents brought a private prosecution against the individuals they suspected of the crime. Unable to get legal aid the couple relied on donations from the public for what had become a cause célèbre. But the judge ruled that key identification evidence was not admissible, and the jury was directed to acquit.

The following year the Daily Mail ran pictures of five men it believed were responsible under the headline: “Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us”. Some suggested this was contempt of court but the Attorney General cleared the paper of the charge.

This was a significant development, with a newspaper usually synonymous with right-wing populism declaring that the “need to re-establish trust between minority ethnic communities and the police is paramount”.

Then in 1999 the government announced an inquiry into the police investigation. At its end its chairman, Sir William Macpherson, found that the police had been incompetent, had failed to give first aid at the scene, failed follow obvious leads in the investigation and failed to arrest obvious suspects.

But more than that it found that there had been a failure of leadership among senior officers who had not implemented recommendations from the 1981 Scarman Report into the 1981 Brixton race riots. Scarman had blamed a few “rotten apples” among police officers. But Macpherson found that the police were “institutionally racist”. The phrase polarised the nation.

He made 70 recommendations for reform and also called for other arms of the establishment – including the civil service, local government, the NHS National Health Service, schools, and the judicial system – to root out systemic racism in their own institutions too.

The repercussions continued. In 2006 the Metropolitan Police Service announced that it would pay Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks £100,000 as compensation for the manner in which they had treated him after the murder. And in 2009 investigators from the Independent Police Complaints Commission arrested two police officers, one retired, on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice by allegedly withholding evidence from the original murder investiagtion and the Macpherson inquiry, though no prosecutions followed.

Perhaps the most far-reaching recommendation by Macpherson, a retired High Court judge, was that the “double jeopardy” rule should be abolished to allow a suspect being tried a second time for a crime. The change was enacted in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Yesterday it was cited by the Court of Appeal which concluded that “there is sufficient, reliable and substantial evidence to justify the quashing of the acquittal and to order a new trial”.

Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, were at in court yesterday to hear the decision. “Perhaps somewhere down the line we will finally get justice for him,” Mrs Lawrence said afterwards.

A step has been taken down that road. Two men now stand charged with murder.


from The Independent

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