Some would say that no murder in British history has resonated so loudly – and for so long – as the killing of Stephen Lawrence on the night of 22nd April 1993. While waiting for a bus home on a street in the London suburb of Eltham, Lawrence was surrounded by a gang of white youths and fatally stabbed.
It has become axiomatic in the reporting of murdered black youths to say that they were promising footballers, ambitious musicians or innocent victims in gang warfare, but Stephen Lawrence was a genuinely decent person, with caring and supportive parents. He was working his way through the education system, and had no connection with the debilitating street culture which still condemns many such young men to lives of crime and hopeless underachievement.
Although immediate investigations into Stephen’s murder identified credible and likely suspects, the police who were involved at the time have been forever tainted with accusations of – at best – total incompetence, and – at worst – breathtaking corruption. The young men who were suspected of Stephen’s murder were all part of the criminal underworld in that part of London. Their parents were career criminals, and the grip that such people can have on a community has been seen time and time again, as in the case of the dreadful Sonnex family, whose fiefdom is the south east London district of Deptford.
Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight were the initial suspects in the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, alongside Gary Dobson and David Norris. All were, to differing degrees, the product of their upbringing by adults on the fringes of – if not deeply embedded in – institutionalised criminal behaviour, contempt for the law, and a visceral hatred of anyone outside their own tribal group.
After a bungled, and possibly corrupt, police investigation failed to bring anyone to court, Stephen Lawrence’s parents brought a private prosecution in 1994. Despite top QCs working pro bono, the case failed due to grave doubts about the reliability of the key witness, Duwayne Brooks, who had been with Stephen at the time of his murder.
In 1997, at the long-delayed inquest into the murder, the five men suspected of the killing refused to co-operate and maintained strict silence. Despite direction to the contrary by the Coroner, the jury returned the verdict that Stephen Lawrence was killed “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths.” Later that year, The Daily Mail named the five as Stephen’s killers, and invited them to sue for defamation. Needless to say, none of the five took up the challenge. Below, the five suspects run the gauntlet of a furious crowd after the inquest.
Also in 1997, the Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered an enquiry into the affair, headed by Sir William Macpherson. The findings, in 1999, were sensational. Among other conclusions, Macpherson stated that the original Metropolitan Police Service investigation had been incompetent and that officers had committed fundamental errors, including: failing to give first aid when they reached the scene; failing to follow obvious leads during their investigation; and failing to arrest suspects. Most damning of all was the view that The Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist.
Despite the devastating views of The Macpherson Report, the five suspects continued their criminal lives, occasionally being convicted, serving short sentences, and then returning to their normal lifestyle. It wasn’t until November 2011, eighteen years after Stephen Lawrence had been struck down, that two of the five suspects were brought to court for his killing. In conditions of absolute secrecy and press lockdown, Gary Dobson and David Norris were tried at The Old Bailey. On 3 January 2012, Dobson and Norris were found guilty of Lawrence’s murder. The two were sentenced on 4 January 2012 to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, equivalent to a life sentence for an adult, with minimum terms of 15 years and 2 months for Dobson and 14 years and 3 months for Norris. The relative leniency of the sentences reflects the age of Dobson and Norris (below) at the time of the killing.
And the legacy of that night on a chilly spring evening on a suburban London street, almost a quarter of a century ago? This is from a recent article in The Daily Telegraph.
“Ennobled last year (2013), the Baroness, 60, maintains a relatively high profile as an activist and arbiter on community relations, and has appeared everywhere from the Tate gallery (as the subject of a Turner Prize-winning painting) to the Olympic Games opening ceremony and Desert Island Discs. In public, she comes across as imperturbable, even detached from the fiercely emotional issues that surround her. There is an unmistakeable Britishness about her that speaks both to her generation and the manner in which she was brought up.”
Neville Lawrence, however has fared differently.
“Today, Mr Lawrence lives in Jamaica, a short distance from Stephen’s grave. The only public memorial to the teenager in Britain is a pavement plaque in Eltham, south-east London, close to where he died. It has been repeatedly defaced with eggs, excrement and racist graffiti, and the family decided that Stephen would rest more peacefully in their ancestral homeland.
The distance – physical and otherwise – between the Lawrences now is so great that neither can really say if it was Stephen’s death that ended their marriage. Baroness Lawrence has hinted that it was headed for trouble anyway, but Neville tends to differ.
“Our world began falling apart from the moment the hospital staff told us our son had died,” he has said. “For some reason that I have tried to understand, and can’t, we couldn’t reach out to each other. We stayed together for another six years, but from that day we never physically touched each other again.”
Below – Doreen and Neville Lawrence