To say that justice was not done back in 1993 when black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in London is an understatement. It is to the credit of the Metropolitan police – written off as institutionally racist during the investigation into this case – that they have now charged two suspects with the murder.
It’s eighteen years since the crime and Stephen Lawrence was just 18 when he died. The suspects in the 1996 trial were obviously guilty as far as the general public were concerned – their criminal families were even caught trying to nobble the jury – but the judge could not sentence them without reasonable doubt.
In short, the scientific evidence at that time was just not good enough for a safe conviction even if every copper in London knew in their bones that they had caught the right guys. So it’s pleasing to hear that the boffins have improved their analysis of the evidence and found compelling new evidence that should be heard in court – leading to the arrest of these two suspects, one of whom has already stood trial for the murder back in the 90s.
Because the double jeopardy rules have changed – it used to be impossible to be tried again for a crime you were previously acquitted of – they are now going to have to stand trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Lawrence, with the CPS presenting fresh new evidence even after all this time. These sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in the UK were made largely because of the Stephen Lawrence case.
This reopened case is important, not least because it may finally achieve justice for the Lawrence family, but also because the reputation of the police service in London was dragged through the mud after this case collapsed. The police were accused of being racist Neanderthals, not much better than the murderers, and certainly not bothered about the loss of a black kid from a rough neighbourhood.
It took a long time for anyone to acknowledge that Stephen Lawrence was a talented kid with a good school record and no criminal record and he was working hard to become an architect. The Royal Institute of British Architects now holds an annual prize in his name and memory.
Justice won’t bring back a murdered individual, but in this case it can remove the bitterness the family – and nation – feels that these thugs got away with it for so long. It also goes some way towards rehabilitating the reputation of the Metropolitan police, who have never quite got beyond the ‘Gene Hunt’ school of policing in the opinion of most middle-class Londoners.
I wont forget this case myself because I was at the 1998 inquiry in person as the London representative of Amnesty International. As the five accused men left the inquiry, a sea of hundreds of – mostly black – Londoners closed in and pelted them. Being close to the front of the crowd, half the missiles were raining down on me and the people nearby!
At one point, I looked up and a steel ladder was flying overhead… Some of the accused men actually traded punches with the crowd, with the police desperately trying to prevent a full-scale riot in Elephant and Castle.
Let’s hope that this time, the Met get their men. It’s been a long time coming.