The smallest details speak the loudest

John Upton

  • The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson
    Stationery Office, 335 pp, £26.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 10 142622 4
  • The Case of Stephen Lawrence by Brian Cathcart
    Viking, 418 pp, £16.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 670 88604 1

There are now two Stephen Lawrences. The first, the murdered 18-year-old victim of racism. The second, a cultural balloon with Stephen Lawrence’s image on it: a balloon so large there is barely any space left in which to think objectively about Lawrence, his murder and the subsequent investigations and Inquiry.

These are the undisputed facts. Stephen Lawrence was returning home on the night of 22 April 1993, accompanied by his friend Duwayne Brooks. They were waiting to catch a bus near the Well Hall Roundabout in Eltham, South London. A group of white youths ran across the road without warning. Stephen Lawrence was stabbed twice. Duwayne Brooks heard the remark ‘What? What? Nigger!’ as the youths approached. From here on, there is no consensus; everything is subject to interpretation.

Remarkably, Lawrence, a trained athlete, was able to run a considerable distance after the attack before collapsing. That display of strength led witnesses to his murder and its immediate aftermath to surmise that he was not mortally wounded and this misapprehension is symbolic of much that would occur in the course of the investigation. From the outset, mistake, ambiguity, a sense of things not being as they seemed, would form a central strand of the Lawrence phenomenon. The victim’s last steps were also the first indication of the fight and persistence which would be demonstrated by the Lawrence family and their supporters.

The groundwork for the subsequent case against the Metropolitan Police was most ably laid by the organisation itself, within minutes of the attack. Their shoddy approach to securing the crime scene and their failure to utilise the ‘golden 24 hours’, vital in any murder investigation, lost them who knows how many opportunities for arresting the murderers or gathering crucial evidence and information.

Mr and Mrs Taaffe, two civilians, arrived at the scene first. They were joined shortly afterwards by PC Geddis, an off-duty policeman, and his wife, who happened to be driving past at the time of the murder. Two other police constables, responding to a 999 call by Brooks, joined the group around the body. Nothing could have been done that would have saved Stephen Lawrence’s life. However, the fact remains that nothing was done. PC Geddis saw Lawrence lying in what he thought was the recovery position. Brooks told him that Lawrence had been hit on the head with an iron bar. The police officers seem to have agreed that in the case of a serious head injury they should wait for the paramedics to arrive. They later claimed not to have seen Lawrence’s blood on the pavement. Doreen Lawrence believes that they failed to give her son the appropriate medical help because ‘they did not want to get their hands dirty with a black man’s blood.’

The day after the murder, the Lawrences, acting on advice from the Anti-Racist Alliance, took the unusual step of appointing a lawyer, Imran Khan, as their representative – an act of some legal sophistication. Imran Khan was to have a significant role in the coming months and years but it is very difficult, as the police were later to complain, to define what exactly his function was. Perhaps we can get closest to Imran Khan’s own sense of it, by examining an interview he gave to the Law Society Gazette after the Lawrence Inquiry:

You shouldn’t balk at taking action against the police if you have to … you’ve got to maintain a vigorous defence of your client … our attitude is that they prosecute, we defend, that is part of pluralism. I’d want their attitude to be the same.

These words encapsulate one of the main points of controversy in the case: that at times it seemed as if there were two defence teams: the real defence representing the accused and the Lawrence team, who employed the tactics and possessed the animus of defence lawyers.

On 26, 27 and 30 April, Khan sent peremptory demands for information to the investigation team (‘bombardment’ in the eyes of the police, ‘sniper fire’ in Khan’s) with the threat that he would report them to the Commissioner if they did not comply with the request. Most policemen would see this as something a good defence solicitor determined to show his steel might do: it would have seemed unusual in a lawyer appointed to liaise with them.

In matters such as these, Khan’s appointment showed up the extreme inflexibility of the police, most of whom take a very simplistic view of members of the legal profession. They regard them as a necessary evil to be dealt with at the end of an investigation and then prefer to remain silent and be ridiculed rather than attempt to enter into any kind of dialogue for fear that their words will be manipulated. This attitude would become a distinct problem at the Inquiry stage but caused friction in police dealings with Imran Khan from the very beginning of the investigation. The lack of intellectual ability displayed by the senior officers engaged in the case is a fitting tribute to the quality of recruit the Metropolitan Police has attracted in the past two decades.

The first investigation, as it has become known, was now embarked on and is detailed lucidly, as are all stages of the affair, in Brian Cathcart’s book. Why the police performed so abysmally at this point has become a matter of debate: did they set out to fail in their investigation of the crime because of Lawrence’s colour or were they simply incompetents who would not have succeeded whatever the victim’s ethnic status?

The factors which can be taken as constituting evidence one way or the other include the insensitivity with which even designated liaison officers dealt with members of the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks, the inability of detectives to operate HOLMES (the computerised cross-referencing system), and the failure to investigate until a month later the presence of a red Astra car at the scene of the murder. The car was found to have contained five local white youths (not the eventual suspects) who had previous convictions for racial violence. This line of inquiry was never pursued. On the other hand, there were extensive house to house inquiries and senior officers immediately and publicly recognised that the murder was racially motivated.

Within a few days four names had emerged by dint of repetition from among the large volume of information that the police received: Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris and Gary Dobson. The names came from unreliable sources – an ex-girlfriend, youths with grudges against them. All four had been suspects in connection with previous acts of racial violence. Despite a barrage of teenage estate gossip with all the attendant rumour, denunciation and inconsistency, the police had no conclusive evidence against any of the four by the end of the first week in May, although in law this would not have prevented them from making arrests.

On 6 May the Lawrences met Nelson Mandela. Speaking of the police, Doreen Lawrence remarked: ‘They are patronising us and when they do that to me I get very angry. They’re not dealing with illiterate blacks. We’re educated. It’s time they woke up to our people.’ And later: ‘Why is it that the leader of a foreign country shows us sympathy while our own government has expressed no interest at all?’ Meeting Mandela was an impressive achievement on the part of the Lawrences and their team and it put irresistible pressure on a poorly organised murder squad to achieve a result.

The Lawrences indeed proved extremely effective lobbyists. When they realised their son’s murder had not made the papers the day after he had been killed, they phoned a contact on the Independent, who immediately came round to interview them. They demonstrated a drive and an understandably blinkered commitment, which is illustrated in Cathcart’s book by their shock that the huge IRA bomb in Bishopsgate should have knocked their son’s murder off the front pages. And far from being uneducated, Doreen Lawrence made it clear that she had a talent for the controversial soundbite and a willingness to use the language of racial struggle in order to be sure of the media’s attention. By the end of the Macpherson Inquiry it was sometimes difficult to know whether the most important issue was investigating an unsolved murder or placating the victim’s mother and her constituency.

On 7 May, three of the suspects, the two Acourts and Gary Dobson, were arrested. David Norris, who lived out of the Eltham area, surrendered himself a short time later. Luke Knight was not a suspect at this stage. The Acourts and Norris gave ‘no comment’ interviews to the police. Dobson, who the police believed would crack, gave an interview but made no admissions or accusations. On 13 May, Duwayne Brooks picked out Neil Acourt at an identification parade. That night Neil Acourt was charged with the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Then it was Luke Knight’s turn, and from the circumstances of his arrest one can see how little evidence underpinned the prosecution case against him. In the fortnight after 22 April the police received 25 anonymous phone calls naming potential murderers. None of them mentioned Luke Knight. His name was written in the diary of Michelle Casserley, the cousin of Stacey Benefield, a youth allegedly attacked by a number of the suspects. Michelle had been a girlfriend of both Jamie Acourt and Gary Dobson and a friend of a friend of one of the main informants against the other four youths in the case. In addition, she was the close friend of a girl called Katie whose black boyfriend was said to have been threatened by Dobson.

The police arrived at Michelle through Katie, who said that Michelle said she knew who had murdered Stephen Lawrence. Somehow, Michelle had picked up gossip about Lawrence’s murder. Katie told the police that Michelle had written the names of the killers in her diary and that ‘Lukey’ was one of them. The diary was examined and the list of the five suspects was indeed there and connected to 22 April. This is the first time the five were named together as a group.

When she was questioned, Michelle said that she was just repeating gossip and that she had never told anybody she knew who the killers were. She had asked Gary Dobson on the phone whether he was one of the murderers and he had denied it.

On the basis of hearsay and a list of names in an unco-operative teenager’s diary, none of which would be admissible evidence in a criminal trial, on 3 June Luke Knight was arrested. Interviewed by the police, he gave a full account of where he had been on the night of the murder. On the same day, Duwayne Brooks picked him out in an identification parade. On 24 June, he was charged with the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Of the five, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight had now been formally charged.

A month later, after taking advice from Counsel, the Crown Prosecution Service issued formal notices of discontinuance to the suspects. There was a storm of indignation and protest from the Lawrences and their increasing numbers of supporters.

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