A Brief Introduction to the Case

On the evening of 22 April 1993 Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black school student with ambitions to become an architect, was stabbed to death while he waited for a bus with a friend in Eltham, southeast London. His assailants, white youths who struck without warning or previous contact, were heard to shout a racist insult. They escaped down a side road.

Less than two weeks later Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, publicly expressed concern at what they saw as a sluggish police response. This was denied and soon afterwards five local boys aged 16 and 17 were arrested and two were charged. A few months later, however, the charges were dropped. With the family demanding a public inquiry the police undertook a second investigation but this too failed to bring the killers to account. The Lawrences next took matters into their own hands, initiating a rare private prosecution for murder against the prime suspects: Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and David Norris. Three were sent for trial but the case against them, heard in 1996, soon collapsed. This left the Lawrences and the police in bitter public conflict, with the couple denouncing the police and justice system as racist and the police insisting they had done all they could.

Public and political disquiet about the case increased significantly in March 1997 after the long-delayed inquest into Stephen’s death. Doreen Lawrence made a statement condemning the British justice system as racist while the five prime suspects, called to testify, all refused to answer questions. The jury found that Stephen had died in ‘a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths’ and the following day the Daily Mail published a front page with the pictures of the five and the one-word headline: ‘Murderers’.

That July the new Labour government announced a public inquiry under former High Court judge Sir William Macpherson, and later that year, before the hearings began, the Police Complaints Authority released findings of its own investigation (the Kent Report) into the handling of the murder case by the Metropolitan Police. Contrary to the findings of the Metropolitan Police’s internal assessment, the Barker Review, this presented a detailed catalogue of failures by officers involved in the initial inquiries in 1993, though the PCA said it found no evidence of racism or corruption.

In March 1998 the Macpherson Inquiry began work. Its first phase, comprising 59 days of hearings, involved questioning of police officers involved in the case, of witnesses, of the five suspects and of a variety of experts. Though the hearings were not broadcast they were closely followed by news media and the public. A second, shorter phase of the Inquiry related to more general matters of race and policing and took the Inquiry to locations outside London.

The Inquiry Report caused a sensation, finding that the Lawrence family and justice had been failed by the police and that the Metropolitan Police Service was institutionally racist. It made 70 recommendations, chiefly relating to reforming police conduct, but its impact went far wider, or at least it appeared so at the time. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, told Parliament that the Report revealed ‘fundamental truths about the nature of our society’ that must be confronted. ‘Any long-established, white-dominated organisation,’ he declared, ‘is liable to have procedures, practices and a culture which tend to exclude or disadvantage none-white people.’

In 2012, following a further police investigation, David Norris and Gary Dobson were convicted of murdering Stephen Lawrence.

The murder and the Inquiry stand together as a milestone in British history. They confronted white Britain and British institutions with the issue of racism and the need for change in a way not seen before. Whether and how far the Inquiry made a difference remains a matter of debate and the case as a whole is a key point of reference in discussions of race and policing both in the UK and beyond. Even three decades on, the name Stephen Lawrence is rarely out of the headlines for long.

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