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.

In October, Detective Chief Superintendent Barker produced a report into the police investigation. He concluded that ‘the investigation had progressed satisfactorily and all lines of inquiry had been correctly pursued.’

At the start of the inquest in December, an application for an indefinite adjournment was made by Michael Mansfield QC on behalf of the Lawrences. ‘Dramatic’ new evidence had been unearthed and the family planned to use this in a private prosecution. If the inquest proceeded it might prejudice such a prosecution. The Coroner granted the request. It was later to transpire that there was no dramatic new evidence.

A new team of detectives took over the investigation, which was renewed in June 1994. It was far better resourced and the investigating officers took a more sympathetic view of the Lawrences’ plight. This time the five suspects were put under constant, intensive surveillance: in the first investigation a police photographer had watched helplessly, his equipment not assembled, as clothing covered by black bin liners was taken from the Acourts’ house. Now there were a dozen observation posts, dustbins were searched and the infamous videotapes were compiled showcasing the talents of four of the youths for both racism and violence (Jamie Acourt was on remand for another offence). Nothing was said throughout the surveillance that would have indicated involvement in the crime.

The Lawrences, feeling that the issue had to be pressed, decided to go ahead with the private prosecution. At the same time, the police offered Gary Dobson immunity from prosecution in return for the scalps of his four friends. The Information, the document that begins a private prosecution, was laid at Greenwich Magistrates on the four remaining youths.

At the committal hearing, Michael Mansfield argued that the surveillance video should be included in evidence, asserting that the tapes, which were filmed 20 months after the offence, proved a motive for the crime. Surely, the defence responded, a motive has to be proved to have existed before the commission of a crime? Mansfield also argued that the four suspects’ denials on tape of involvement in the murder amounted to admissions of guilt because it appeared that they smiled as they made their denials. Despite vehement defence arguments, the Magistrate admitted the videotapes as evidence at the committal. Jamie Acourt and David Norris were discharged at this stage; Neil Acourt and Luke Knight – the two picked out by Brooks – were committed for trial.

In the meantime forensic tests had been performed on 1071 fibres. Only three of any interest were found. They could have come from a vast range of cardigans sold in many different shops. They could also have come from an article of Gary Dobson’s clothing. Dobson, having refused to co-operate, was committed for trial.

The trial began at the Central Criminal Court on 17 April 1996, in front of Mr Justice Curtis, and ended eight days later due to the unreliability of Brooks’s evidence. The reasons why the case against the three men progressed no further than an initial legal argument held without a jury being present are worth looking into.

We know that on 13 May 1993 Duwayne Brooks identified Neil Acourt and that on 3 June he identified Luke Knight, but it is necessary to go back to the night of the crime to put these identifications and subsequent events in context.

On the night of the attack, Brooks made a written statement describing ‘the stabber’ of Stephen Lawrence. He said the attacker’s hair was ‘long, over his ears and it was frizzy and stuck out at the sides’. ‘I can’t really describe his facial features,’ he continued, ‘but I think I could recognise him again from his hair and general look. Of the others I can only say they were all white, about the same age and they were all wearing jeans.’ He also gave evidence that the incident was over in three seconds and that he saw it from 20 yards along the street as he was running away.

On 1 May 1993, Brooks was seen by a policeman and said that he could not add anything to the statement he had already given. On 2 May, Imran Khan became Brooks’s solicitor. While it is perfectly legitimate to have the legal representative of the victim’s family also advising the only real witness to the crime, it may seem very unwise, and especially so in a case where the family is taking a very vigorous approach to the prosecution of the suspects.

Imran Khan interviewed Duwayne Brooks without informing the police, and a trainee solicitor called Ahmed Ratip made a note of their conversation. Later, when questioned about his own role in interview, Ratip could not remember anything that had been said. The note of the interview, which Imran Khan was reluctant to disclose at the trial, reported the following (among other things): ‘There were other people at the bus stop – police said one of them said he saw the fight with Stephen and other six boys. I’ve seen his statement.’ These appear to be Brooks’s words, referring to the statement of one of the other witnesses present at the scene that night. The effect of Brooks seeing another person’s statement, especially one containing descriptions of suspects, would be to invalidate the subsequent identification procedure. At some point after the note had been taken, there had been a clumsy attempt to change the date on it from 2 May to 8 May (i.e. after the first identification parade). In his ruling on the evidence, the judge did not rely on this incident.

On 6 May, a member of the police facial identity team visited Brooks. Once again he gave a description of the stabber’s hair: ‘fairly long, covered the ears, straight hair’. He added: ‘It was very light brown in colour. After he had been running it was messed and fell to the sides of the man’s face.’ No description of the facial features was given to the policeman. Brooks said that he was not sure that he could identify the man again. Afterwards, Brooks saw a policeman responsible for creating identikit images of clothing. This time the photofit of the suspect, assembled under Brooks’s direction, had peroxide blonde hair.

On an identification parade on 7 May, Brooks failed to pick out Jamie Acourt. On 13 May, he attended three identification parades. At the first he identified a volunteer. At the second he identified Neil Acourt and at the third he identified nobody, although a suspect was on the parade. On 3 June, he identified Luke Knight as ‘one of the attacking youths’. He had not seen him use a weapon.

During at least one of the identification parades, there was telephone contact between Brooks and Imran Khan. Brooks gave Khan a running commentary on the progress of the parade. Afterwards, Brooks came into the witness waiting-room and asked whether anyone else had identified people on the parade. He also sought the names and addresses of witnesses. Imran Khan has no recollection of that call occurring. The Inquiry was later to comment that there was no reason to doubt that the call took place.

Immediately after the 3 June parade, Brooks had a conversation with DS Crowley, his police minder for that day (who had no connection with the murder investigation). There has been disagreement as to the exact content of the conversation but the main areas of concern for the judge at trial were that Brooks told Crowley that he (Brooks) had been told that the Acourt brothers had committed the murder and that Neil (whom he identified on 13 May) was the brother of the youth he had identified before (i.e. a volunteer) and, second, that friends had given him hints about Acourt’s features and hair.

In other words, he was unable to recognise the attackers, particularly the stabber, and he had attended one or perhaps two identification parades in which his identifications were based on information received. Crowley’s evidence was accepted by the judge and later at the Inquiry. Brooks declined to name the friends who had supplied him with the names of the Acourts within days of the offence.

This would have been enough to discredit Brooks as an identification witness, but the judge, anxious to put the matter beyond all doubt, continued his exposition of the unreliability of Brooks’s evidence.

On 23 September 1993, Brooks told the police that he could now add to his statement that he was chased at the scene of the murder by a youth with an iron bar, who then hit Stephen Lawrence on the head with it. But Lawrence received no head injuries (though Brooks had said to PC Geddis that he had) and this account conflicted with the other eyewitness versions of events. Brooks did not describe the iron bar-wielder nor did he alter his previous description of the stabber. He had not mentioned this incident before to anyone, not even his advising solicitor, and in this account, the iron bar-wielder was the last of the youths Brooks saw before he ran off.

Brooks claimed that in the month he reported the iron bar incident, and again on 6 November 1993, he saw two youths in a burger bar and at The Plough, a pub in South-East London. On 9 December 1993, he made a statement to police that the two men at the burger bar had been at the scene when the murder was committed and they looked like they were brothers. At the committal proceedings that followed, Jamie Acourt was, as we know, discharged. Brooks gave evidence that one of the burger bar youths with short black hair was the attacker and that as soon as he saw him he recognised him as the brother of a youth he had picked out at an identification parade.

At the trial, Brooks gave evidence that Luke Knight, whom he had identified on 3 June, was the attacker. He had never been identified as having been at either the burger bar or The Plough. Originally Brooks had said that the person identified on 3 June had no weapon and that he had not seen him with one. This conflicted with what he had previously said about the fluffy-haired attacker and with what he later said about the burger bar man.

Counsel for Knight suggested that the reason Brooks had identified Knight on 3 June was that Brooks was searching for a man who looked like the one he had seen on the 13 May parade. The judge accepted this explanation.

In his final comments on the validity of Brooks’s evidence, the judge noted that where recognition was concerned Brooks did not know ‘whether he is on his head or his heels’; that he had had only a fleeting glimpse of the attackers; that he had been asked many times about his identification evidence and that he had identified up to four different people as the stabber.

In sum, Brooks’s evidence was hugely flawed and there was no other evidence of any substance. There had been no true identification at the time of the murder and subsequent identifications had been ‘tainted’. ‘The perils of misidentification are well known,’ the judge remarked before excluding Brooks’s identification evidence, ‘and an Act of Parliament and the established cases require the trial judge to act as a screen to see that the material to go before the jury is material on which they can properly convict according to law.’ The judge’s decision to exclude Brooks’s identification evidence was based on the ruling in R v. Turnbull 1977 QB, which states that a judge should intervene in order to stop a case when ‘the identification evidence is so meagre and there is no other evidence properly capable of confirming the correctness of a weak identification.’

The prosecution case against all three men was withdrawn and the jury entered formal verdicts of not guilty. Outside the Old Bailey, Imran Khan commented: ‘We are extremely disappointed with the judge’s ruling and would have hoped the identification evidence could be put before the jury – something that happens in nearly every case.’

Clearly, the emotion of the moment had made Imran Khan forget his law of evidence and the normal practice of the court. In July 1996, Neville Lawrence told a Channel Four documentary that the judge ‘had been brought down from Birmingham to do a special job and he did it’. Doreen Lawrence had earlier complained of the CPS being ‘tone deaf to our existence and our needs and concerns’. In fact, the result of the private prosecution proved the CPS decision to be correct: by applying the rules of evidence accurately, and with an even hand, it came to the only realistic decision that a competent lawyer could come to.

Howard Youngerwood, the Assistant Chief Prosecutor responsible for the Lawrence prosecution, was harassed by the public at the Lawrence Inquiry before he out-victimed them in describing his own experience as a Jew of racism in this country. He also received damages from the Observer, who had accused him of having racist tendencies. The Macpherson Inquiry vindicated both the trial judge and the CPS.

On 14 February 1997, after the five suspects, acting within their rights, declined to give evidence to the reconvened inquest, the Daily Mail brought out its famous front cover with photographs of the five youths under the headline: ‘MURDERERS … If we are wrong, let them sue us.’ The headline is open to criticism for several reasons, the most obvious being that it is a re-judgment outside of a court of law. As with so much in the case, something was done for short-term effect which could have far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system.

The Lawrence case had left the realm of the purely legal and entered the domain of popular culture, where it occupied the moral peak. It was now heresy to suggest that there should have been anything other than a trial and conviction of the Eltham Five. It did not matter that there was effectively no admissible evidence against them, that no one had reliably identified them as suspects in the case, that there was no definitive forensic evidence and no confessions, and that lengthy and intrusive surveillance had yielded no further clues. Still these men, according to the prevailing wisdom, should be denied their rights in law.

‘I don’t normally think it’s right for people to be witch-hunted in this way,’ Paul Foot remarked, ‘but in this case the legal process had run its course and the case against these men was overwhelming.’ Peter Preston, the former editor of the Guardian, concluded that the alternative verdict reached by the Mail (whose editor, Paul Dacre, knew Neville Lawrence) was ‘a valid way of expressing the extreme anger at the state this case has been left in’. In the general frenzy of indignation, defendants’ rights and due process were of no consequence. The Lawrence phenomenon, the balloon, had almost fully inflated.

In May 1997, two months after the start of a Police Complaints Authority investigation into the case, but only a few weeks after the change of government, the final space began to be filled. The Lawrence case was a justice opportunity too tempting for New Labour to resist. It provided a be-spoke setting for the all-singing, all-dancing talents of the fresh regime, showing Blair and his Government to be operating on a flat management structure: you the citizen talk, we listen. On 31 July, it was announced in the Commons that an Inquiry would be held, its remit: ‘To inquire into the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 in order particularly to identify the lessons to be learned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes.’ The Inquiry was to be divided into two parts. Part one was to deal with matters directly arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence and part two with the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated offences.

The Lawrences submitted their own short list of who they wished to see chair the Inquiry but the Home Secretary Jack Straw settled on his own man, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, a retired High Court Judge. He was to be supported by John Sentamu, the Anglican Bishop of Stepney, Tom Cook, former Deputy Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, and Richard Stone, Chairman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.

The Lawrences decided that Sir William was an unsuitable chairman, given his record in immigration proceedings. (The Observer also objected to Edmund Lawson, Counsel to the Inquiry, on the grounds that he represented members of the Police Federation on a regular basis.) The Inquiry was adjourned while the Lawrences received assurances from the Home Secretary about Macpherson’s impartiality.

From the Inquiry Report it seems that proceedings were conducted in a strange atmosphere combining saccharine sentiment and naked adversarial aggression. Once again, the battle lines were drawn. The Lawrence team would allege an establishment conspiracy involving racism and corruption. The police would take refuge in the claim that they were bumbling plods incapable of organising a conspiracy.

Like so much of the Lawrence affair, the Inquiry proceedings exposed issues of control and power. Macpherson struggled to contain Mansfield and his junior, Stephen Kamlish, who, repeating their performance at the inquest, strained at the boundaries of the Inquiry’s remit in examining the police officers involved in the investigations. Pressure came from all sides. At one stage, Cathcart relates, the ‘people of the public gallery’ sent a petition to Macpherson complaining that Counsel for the police was attempting to discredit the Lawrences and Duwayne Brooks: ‘We are not happy to see you are always obliging their wishes, yet seeming to cut short the cross-examination by Jeffrey Yearwood, Ian Macdonald QC, Rajiv Menon, Michael Mansfield QC and Stephen Kamlish.’

Duwayne Brooks did not give evidence or submit to cross-examination. He read a statement in which he spoke extensively of his feelings. Doreen Lawrence refused to be cross-examined, saying:

Am I on trial or something here? I mean, from the time of my son’s murder I have been treated not as a victim … Now, I can only tell you or put in my statements what I know of what went on that night, and for me to be questioned in this way, I do not appreciate it.

Faced, on the one hand, with the reality of Doreen Lawrence’s status as one of the most influential people in the Inquiry room, and, on the other, with her desire to retain the image of principal victim, the Inquiry capitulated. Sir William gently dissuaded Counsel for the Metropolitan Police from continuing his cross-examination. Neville Lawrence was not asked any questions.

The Barker Report and its author were rightly discredited and Assistant Commissioner Johnston gave his heartfelt but irrelevant apologies. The dynamic had changed and nothing the Met could say or do would alter the public perception of them. At the Inquiry they performed their usual trick of catching themselves out and stonewalling in the face of questioning by their social superiors. From everything that had happened it was clear that, at best, the Force employed numbskulls up to a very senior level.

MANSFIELD: What do you understand to be the meaning of the word ‘racist’ or ‘racism’?

ILSLEY: People making derogatory remarks about people of a different colour.

MANSFIELD: Is that all? Is that all you want to say about that?

ILSLEY: I am sure there are other things, but I can’t think of them at the moment. I am sure if I sat down and worked it out, I’m sure I would think of other things.

MANSFIELD: It is a difficult scenario, sitting in a witness box being asked questions in this way, and it may not be easy to get the mind working in this way, but I want to give you the fullest opportunity to deal with this. If there is anything else you want to add …

ILSLEY: There are a lot of things. Equal opportunities as well, sir.

MANSFIELD: Do you agree that racism does not necessarily show itself in the most obvious ways, like, you know, using the word ‘nigger’?

ILSLEY: I understand that, sir, yes. People have a bias or prejudice, something like that.

MANSFIELD: Have you been aware of the more difficult kind of racism that sometimes appears within the police force?

ILSLEY: No, I haven’t.

MANSFIELD: Never?

ILSLEY: Never, sir.

Ilsley was the Detective Chief Superintendent in charge of the Eltham area.

The issue of corruption – the ‘Norris factor’ – was raised by the Lawrence team, Clifford Norris, David’s father, being a notorious gangster. Much has been written about Norris senior’s possible influence on the handling of the Lawrence murder. Mansfield argued that it permeated the investigation until Clifford Norris’s arrest in June 1994. The undisputed evidence he presented in support of his allegations ranged from the incredible – that in 1976 one of the officers on the case had signed an administrative document concerning the teenage Clifford Norris and was thereafter in his power – to the truly shocking: a Flying Squad officer, who would later act as a minder for Duwayne Brooks at trial, was observed meeting Norris by Customs officers investigating a drug-smuggling case.

Mansfield asked that the Inquiry infer corruption in the absence of any hard evidence. The Inquiry decided that there was nothing to prove that corruption had played a part in the investigation.

Perhaps it was this technique, of treating the most trivial and the most serious allegations with the same gravity in order to score small victories while cross-examining in front of an undiscerning public gallery, that diminished the impact of some of what Mansfield was alleging.

The suspects were called and did not contribute anything new. As they left the building after completing their evidence, they were made to run the gauntlet of the crowd that had gathered outside. In doing the minimum to protect them, the Metropolitan Police was behaving like a beaten dog, fawning to the people who held them in the most contempt. It was an embarrassing display of indecision on the part of an organisation in turmoil.

Finally Imran Khan was questioned. On the night before he was to give his evidence, Michael Mansfield requested that he be provided with a detailed list of the documents on which Khan was to be cross-examined. No other witness had been allowed this luxury. When the point was raised, Sir William replied that no one else had asked. The request was granted.

In February 1999, the Report was published, bound in the pink of the Elephant and Castle shopping-centre where the Inquiry had been held. In the Report, the facts ascertained from examining witnesses were interpreted in the light of racism and its attendant anxieties. In coming to a definition of institutionalised racism, the Inquiry quotes with approval, at paragraph 6.18, Dan Crompton, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary: ‘It is no longer enough to believe “all that is necessary is to treat everyone the same … it might be said it is about treatment according to need.” ’

On the following page, at 6.27, it relies on the following written submission from the Metropolitan Police Service Black Police Association:

Institutional racism … permeates the Metropolitan Police Service. This issue above all others is central to the attitudes, values and beliefs, which lead officers to act, albeit unconsciously and for the most part unintentionally, and treat others differently, solely because of their ethnicity or culture.

Oblivious to the potential conflict between these two strains of thought the whistle-stop tour of the sources moves on. Having made its way through quotations from, among others, the Campaign for Racial Equality, the Scarman Report, the Rotterdam Charter, Stokely Carmichael and the 1990 Trust, the Inquiry unveils its own definition of institutionalised racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

The Inquiry concludes that institutional racism exists in the Met and in other police services, and indeed in other institutions countrywide.

In determining whether institutional racism was a factor in the Lawrence investigation, the Inquiry first seeks to set down the legal basis for its finding. The Inquiry, we are told, applies common sense, not law in drawing legitimate inferences from the primary evidence before it. In then reaching its conclusions, the Inquiry applies the civil standard of proof – i.e. that it is satisfied on a balance of probability that any conclusion it reaches is justified. It then goes on to quote the words of Mummery J. in Quereshi v. Victoria University of Manchester and Brazier: ‘The assessments of the parties and their witnesses when they give evidence also form an important part of the process of inference.’

Given the weight placed on the perceptions and views of the Lawrences and Duwayne Brooks in the whole affair, and given that they refused or were unable to provide live evidence at the Inquiry, and given that, at paragraph 6.45, the only specific case-related grounds on which the Inquiry rests its finding of institutional racism concerns the treatment of Brooks and the Lawrence family, is it possible to say that the maxim laid down by Mummery, and quoted with evident approval by the Lawrence Inquiry, has even come near to being fulfilled?

Sir William rather snootily quotes Philo, writing in the first century AD, at the police, to the effect that a judge trying a case ‘must remember that he is himself on trial’. The Inquiry heard fully from relevant members of the police and prosecuting authorities, who all gave live evidence that was rigorously tested in cross-examination. Except for Imran Khan, none of the principal parties on the Lawrence side participated fully in this process. The fact that the Inquiry did not consider it necessary to hear from the Lawrences or Brooks suggests that it had already drawn its conclusions before considering the evidence before it.

It is true that the Lawrences and Duwayne Brooks read out personal statements during the Inquiry, but issues of some gravity were under consideration and in these circumstances it was important to compare like with like. In other words, both sides should have been available for cross-examination. It would have been as well had Sir William been reminded of the rather simpler aphorism of Augustine of Hippo – Audi partem alteram: ‘hear the other side’ – which forms the basis of our modern-day concept of natural justice.

The conclusion of the Inquiry was that there had been fundamental errors in the investigation of the murder and that these were caused by professional incompetence, institutional racism and failures of leadership. In other words, the Inquiry decided that the police were bumbling racists – a compromise position of sorts.

Sir William and his team made 70 recommendations, the majority of which are uncontroversial and welcome. They include a recommendation that a Freedom of Information Act should apply to all areas of policing and that Race Relations legislation should apply to all police officers. If and when the recommendations are implemented, they should further expose to public scrutiny die race and class-based prejudices of the Metropolitan Police Service. A small number are worth looking at now. They range from the puzzling:

13. That the term ‘racist incident’ must be understood to include crimes and non-crimes in policing terms. Both must be reported, recorded and investigated with equal commitment.

What is a ‘non-crime’? If an activity is a ‘non-crime’ in policing terms, should the police really be investigating it?

Through the discriminatory:

36. That the CPS should have the positive duty always to notify a victim and victim’s family personally of a decision to discontinue, particularly in cases of racist crime, with speed and sensitivity.

To the disturbing:

38. That consideration should be given to the Court of Appeal being given power to permit prosecution after acquittal where fresh and viable evidence is presented.

A range of conclusions can be drawn from the murder of Stephen Lawrence and its aftermath, over and above those officially produced by the Inquiry. There is, in particular, the matter of public institutions bending to private grief. The private prosecution, inquest and Inquiry were all, in varying degrees, attempts to create vehicles for the Lawrences to express their political agenda. At the reconvened inquest Doreen Lawrence delivered a speech which included the following:

The value that this white racist country puts on black lives is evident, as seen since the killing of my son. In my opinion, what happened in the Crown Court last year was staged. It was decided long before we entered the Courtroom what would happen – that the judge would not allow the evidence to be presented to the jury.

      In my opinion what happened was the way of the judicial system making a clear statement, saying to the black community that their lives are worth nothing and that the justice system will support anyone, any white person who wishes to commit a crime or even murder, against a black person. You will be protected. You will be supported by the British system. To the black community: your lives are nothing. You do not have feelings. You do not have any rights to the law in this country … The Establishment needs to have in place a system that will allow all crimes to be treated in the same way … not to have one rule for the white and another for the black people.

If legal considerations alone were at issue, the private prosecution should not have been brought. Of course they were not and this is what led to the collision between the Lawrences’ crusade and the strictly legal approach necessarily taken by the authorities and, rather more gratefully, by the lawyers acting for the five suspects.

In this context, it is difficult to understand those in the liberal community who have been prepared to turn much of what they stand for on its head and disregard rights in die interest of vengeance. It isn’t often that you see civil liberties lawyers braying for the dismantling of procedural safeguards designed to protect defendants or victim-led justice fuelled by an upmarket media onslaught. Blake Morrison’s review of Cathcart’s book for the Independent on Sunday is an example of the way reality has been excluded from the Lawrence supporters’ considerations.

The CPS, Morrison writes, ‘wrecked the chances of the Lawrence family’s private prosecution through its hounding of the vulnerable Duwayne Brooks … destroying Duwayne’s credibility as a witness in the Lawrence case’. His claim is that the CPS, in prosecuting Duwayne Brooks for an offence he committed between Lawrence’s murder and the private prosecution, prevented the successful conviction of the five suspects. At his own trial Brooks’s defence had been that he was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from the murder of his friend. The psychiatric evidence produced to support this defence, Morrison believes, was used to question the accuracy of his identification of the five youths at their trial.

Here are the judge’s comments on this point, which he gave after excluding Brooks’s identification evidence:

Other matters were urged upon me about Mr Brooks’s medical condition following the stabbing … I only mention it out of deference to the arguments of Counsel to say that I have not overlooked these points but I do not need to pronounce on them in view of what I have already said.

Later in the review Morrison remarks that it is ‘the smallest details that speak the loudest’ in the case. These small details also happen frequently to have the least relevance to the principal issues that the case brings up. The obsession with media-friendly detail has meant that the debate as to what did go wrong in the Lawrence investigation has focused on such incidents as the policeman folding into squares a list of suspects provided by the Lawrences (the document was duly processed in the incident room) and whether Gary Dobson, self-confessed ‘nigger-hater’, really did borrow a Bob Marley CD from the Acourts (not whether this provided him with an alibi on the night of the murder), rather than the sufficiency of evidence in the case.

It is the lack of a sense of proportion demonstrated by Morrison and his inability to understand or admit that using the term ‘nigger’, however unpleasant that may be, does not necessarily make someone a race murderer that are symptomatic of a climate in which criticism of anything said or done by the Lawrences or any member of their team must be prevented at all costs.

Again, if Michael Mansfield’s conduct and decisions over the course of the many proceedings were to be taken as typical of his behaviour as a lawyer, his manipulation of the rules of evidence in order to secure admission of the surveillance tapes at committal, his approval of a private prosecution which had no realistic chance of success and his criticism of defendants exercising their rights would mark him out as either an over-eager ally of Michael Howard or a novice advocate pushed in at the deep end.

The removal of the rule against double jeopardy, as recommended in the Report, would mean that the state would have as many further attempts as it liked to prosecute someone after they had been acquitted of a crime – which could prove a useful tool on any occasion when the state wishes to harass those whom it considers worth harassing. The proposed amendment in the law so as to make it an offence to use racist language in private would similarly strike at the heart of an individual’s civil liberties.

Yet the most dangerous legacy of the Inquiry lies not in its specific recommendations but in its sentimentalised and unbalanced approach to the consideration of controversial issues. Just as it is dangerous to judge Michael Mansfield on the basis of this performance, so it is unwise to make systemic changes on a wave of emotion, misunderstanding and inaccuracy in order to facilitate the prosecution of today’s public enemies numbers one to five. For, as the argument goes, tomorrow’s public enemy number one could be innocent old you.