In 1996 Neil Acourt, Mr Knight and Mr Dobson stood trial for murder but were acquitted after the judge decided the evidence of witness Duwayne Brooks – Stephen’s friend and with him at the time – was unreliable.
A police officer claimed that when they were driving home from an identification parade Duwayne had told him he was unsure of those he had picked out. Duwayne however still maintains he correctly identified Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, but when he spoke in front of the judge he appeared muddled, and the judge ruled that he was unreliable as a witness.
In the case of Gary Dobson, a later Kent Police report said four adults had confirmed his presence elsewhere on the night of the murder. All five have consistently denied the allegations made against them. A reinvestigation was launched in February 1997 to establish exactly how Stephen had died, but this has led to no fresh charges being brought.
On 31 July 1997 the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced an inquiry into Stephen’s death, chaired by Lord William Macpherson. In December 1997 a PCA report concluded that the police operation was well organised, and that there was no evidence of racist conduct.
The inquiry into the failure of the original police investigation to find and convict Stephen’s killers, became one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain. MacPherson ordered that the five originally arrested must give evidence at the inquiry and that if they failed to do so, would be liable to prosecution.
The Inquiry was presented with a videotape recorded by a secret police camera hidden in the flat of one of the suspects, showing them brandishing knives and expressing violent racist views. This video was later screened on national television.
The inquiry could not find any new evidence against the suspects and accepted the previous evidence was not enough to convict them. The inquiry panel went on to blast the police for not gathering enough evidence in the first instance, and said that the investigation had been spoiled “by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”
Famously concluding that the force was “institutionally racist”, it made 70 recommendations and had an enormous impact on the race relations debate from criminal justice through to all public authorities. The inquiry also concluded, “Stephen Lawrence’s murder was simply, solely and unequivocally motivated by racism. It was the deepest tragedy for his family. It was an affront to society, and especially to the local black community in Greenwich. Nobody has been convicted of this crime.
That is also an affront both to the Lawrence family and the community at large.” Stephen’s mother Doreen said she was “devastated” by the decision, which “shattered” any glimmer of hope she had left. In a statement read out on her behalf by solicitor Imran Khan, she said she was angry that it had taken so long to come to this conclusion. She also felt bitter that while Stephen’s death had led to many positive changes to the British criminal justice system, the family had not itself been helped by them. “The irony is that society has benefited where we have not,” she said.
In February 1999 the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, promised radical reform in the wake of the report. The government has subsequently tackled the double jeopardy rule which states that, in English law, anyone cleared of a crime in court cannot be retried for the same crime at a later date. It is through this legal loophole that the murder suspects were able to escape justice. Now a retrial can be conducted if significant new evidence emerges.
In May 2004 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advised police that there was insufficient evidence for prosecutions over the murder and the attack on Stephen’s friend, Duwayne Brooks, following a reinvestigation of the crime.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, said: “I realise that Mr and Mrs Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks will have hoped for a different conclusion to the review so that someone could be prosecuted for the terrible crime that happened.”
Many campaigners say the system is still failing minority communities. The aftermath of Stephen’s murder marked a low point in relations between ethnic minorities and the police, something which senior officers say they are still trying to rectify. Black people are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. Black men are also disproportionately over-represented in the prison population compared to white men; and last year the commander of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-racist unit said the force remained institutionally racist, despite a “sea-change” in its attitudes and behaviour.
The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust was established in 1998 by Stephen’s parents, to advance education and promote equality of opportunity and good race relations. It also provides bursaries for students from disadvantaged communities to study architecture.
The 22nd April 2003 marked the 10th anniversary of Stephen’s death. Doreen Lawrence said her biggest “grief” was the fact that the five prime suspects were still at large, and probably only their own admission of guilt or a “miracle” would see them jailed. She also said, “Part of me thinks it won’t ever happen because they’ve lost so much time.”
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24 November 2014
Stephen Lawrence murder: 20th anniversary to be marked
4 January 2013
Stephen Lawrence’s mother visits his grave in Jamaica (video)
3 January 2012
How the Stephen Lawrence murder case changed Britain (video)
3 January 2012
Stephen Lawrence pair face murder trial
18 May 2011
Police ‘still fail black Britons’
21 February 2009
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry
Report of the inquiry
By Sir William MacPherson
Police compensation for Stephen Lawrence’s friend
10 March 2006
Met police still ‘racist’
22 April 2003