The killing of a black teenager and his parents’ search for justice
When Doreen Lawrence arrived home in the evening, late because of a field trip with other students from London University, she wasn’t surprised that her eldest son was still out. Stephen was 18 and was expected home by his curfew of 10.30.
Alarm bells began to ring for Doreen when a young man came to the door with his father to say that Stephen and a friend had been attacked at a bus stop. The police were called but knew nothing. Doreen and her husband immediately left the house and went to the bus stop. Stephen wasn’t there, so they decided to try the hospital thinking he would have gone there if he’d been injured.
There they found a police officer and the friend who’d been with Stephen. They waited awhile before the hospital’s doctor told them Stephen had died from his injuries.
When Doreen tells this story she recounts it carefully and in great detail as though offering evidence in a court room. She and her husband have lived with the events of that night for 16 years. An internet search using the words Stephen Lawrence murder returns more than 210 thousand results. Those thousands and thousands of postings are testament to the determination of his parents to first uncover the truth about his murder, then to prosecute those responsible and finally to achieve reform of the police force so what had happened to them could not happen again.
This is Lawrence’s account of what happened that night in April, 1993. “Stephen and a friend were waiting for a bus to take them home. They had walked down to the corner of the road to see if the bus was coming when a group of white men saw them and shouted out “what nigger” and then ran across the road and surrounded Stephen where they stabbed him several times.”
This incident happened in front of a number of people. When the police arrived, they were told which road the men had run down but did not pursue them.
Doreen believes that because Stephen and his friend were black the police automatically assumed the murder was gang related and did not investigate it as a racist murder.
The police in fact, first of all investigated the Lawrences themselves, assuming they must have been involved in criminal activities which were related to their son’s death. They also continued to investigate Stephen’s death as gang-related. Information was given to the police by people from the area where Stephen was killed but no arrests were made.
Realizing they were getting nowhere, the Lawrences began their campaign for answers. Two weeks after the murder, in a blaze of publicity, the Lawrences met with Nelson Mandela who was on a visit to London.
Shortly after, three men were arrested but they were subsequently released and the case was dropped later that year.
The Lawrences refused to accept the outcome.
They brought a private prosecution. Five suspects were arrested, three of whom went to trial but three years on that case collapsed after the judge in the case ruled that much of the eyewitness evidence was unreliable and inadmissible.
Nearly four years after Stephen’s murder, in 1997 the inquest which had begun months after his murder, resumed. The purpose of an inquest under British law is to establish the facts only. Inquests do not apportion blame. The Inquest called five men to give evidence, however, all of them refused to answer questions. At the close of the Inquest the Coroner directed the jury that there was only one available verdict, that Stephen Lawrence was unlawfully killed. The jury complied with the direction but in a very unusual move also requested it be recorded that Stephen Lawrence was killed “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths.” One of London’s tabloid newspapers, “The Daily Mirror” subsequently published photographs of each of the five men on its front page under an enormous headline, “MURDERERS” and with a line underneath which read “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.” None of them ever has.
Later that same year the government of the day announced an independent judicial inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence which began in 1998 and published its report at the beginning of the following year.
Describing his death as a “racist murder”, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found that, “The investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”
“There is no remedy,” the report said, “for the grief which the unsuccessful investigation piled upon the grief caused by the murder itself.”
It’s a decade on now since those damning findings were released and there have been many changes made to try and address the issues identified in the report.
For Doreen Lawrence however, not enough has changed.
She continues to campaign for justice. “At the time,” she said, “the police and the justice system failed us as a family and the wider black community because of their racist behaviour and because of this they did not investigate Stephen’s murder in the way that they should.”
Lawrence believes that this racist attitude is found not just in Stephen’s case. Many other young, black men continue to endure racism on the streets on a daily basis, she believes, at the hands of the police and the justice system.
20 May 2009