For the past two days, news of Stephen Lawrence’s killers being sentenced has dominated the media. After the 18 year old was killed in a racially motivated attack in 1993, five suspects have been tried over the course of nearly two decades, which today culminated in David Norris and Gary Dobson being sentenced to 14 and 15 years in prison respectively. The case remains open, but after 18 years of various police failings, further progress seems doubtable.
The catalogue of police inadequacies that followed Lawrence’s death is almost astonishing, beginning with the officers called to the scene where he had been stabbed being unable, or unwilling, to administer first aid to the dying teenager. Lawrence and friend Duwayne Brooks were waiting for a bus in Eltham, south-east London, when a gang of white teenagers began hurling racist abuse at them. Lawrence was then stabbed twice, and managed to run 130 yards away in spite of two of his major arteries being severed. He then collapsed, and had died by the time paramedics arrived.
From then on, the case has been opened and closed, reopened with a public enquiry (which then Home Secretary Jack Straw describes as one of the his greatest triumphs while in office), been accused of cross contamination of evidence, and the Metropolitan Police has been described as being institutionally racist. This case is one that has truly highlighted a desperation for retribution, largely through the tireless campaigning of Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, OBE. Over the past 18 years, she has not been shy to condemn the force for the disorganised way in which it dealt with the case from the beginning, and opened the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which offers opportunities to aspiring architects – the same career path her son was hoping to follow.
Of the two criminals convicted yesterday, Dobson was already in prison serving a drugs sentence and Norris had been convicted some years earlier of assaulting a plain clothes black policeman. In addition to this, a secret video camera planted by police in Dobson’s flat 20 months after Lawrence’s death showed both convicts as well as other members of their gang spouting foul racial abuse and messing around with knives. In spite of this, and the numerous tip offs given to police about the dangers of the Eltham mob which came to nothing for over 18 years, two people have been imprisoned after being free for longer than Lawrence ever got to live. And, perhaps worst of all, the sentence they received is proportionate to the fact that they were minors at the time, and had to be sentenced according to laws in place in 1993. As such, Dobson and Norris, who have remained utterly remorseless throughout and have been proven as racists on more than one occasion, will leave prison when they are 51 and 49 respectively. To think that they will have so much of their lives to lead when they took just that away from an innocent young man cannot, in my opinion, be called justice.
I certainly understand the laws which meant those sentences were the maximum they possibly could be, and making exceptions to legal rules is dangerous territory, but perhaps not as dangerous as letting racist thugs loose on the streets. Jamie and Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, the other members of the gang, have thus far literally got away with murder. The more one reads about the case, the more disgusting and deplorable it becomes, and last night’s Panorama documentary, which focussed on Doreen Lawrence’s plight, reinforced this once more. While the jury’s verdict obviously comes as a huge relief to the Lawrence family, it can never be a cause for celebration – they have lost a son, had their lives torn apart by police failings and over 18 years of court appearances, and will never get back what was taken away from them. All of the British national newspapers have run with headlines along the lines of ‘justice at last for the Lawrence family,’ but nothing about the situation ever has been, or ever will be, just. I was acutely aware of the case as a child, and as time has gone on and I have learned the true horrors of what happened, I am filled with sadness that people can behave in such a vile manner that destroys the lives of so many. Justice will never be truly served, but one positive that can be taken from this bleak situation is that it has heightened the public’s awareness of racially motivated crime and the desperate need we have to stop it.