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The Stephen Lawrence Murder Convictions: Some Reservations

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On 2 January 2012, David Norris and Gary Dobson were convicted of the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993; today they have been sentenced respectively to 14 years and three months and 15 years and one month imprisonment. I will not pretend I will shed any tears for this outcome; I am delighted that after 18 years some semblance of justice will be seen to be done.

The Stephen Lawrence murder exposed an inefficient Metropolitan Police Service which was condemned in the later MacPherson inquiry as being “institutionally racist.” To their credit, post MacPherson, the UK police did change and the state of contemporary policing is much improved although still has some way to go (the changes were applied to all other police forces, not just the Metropolitan service).Norris and Dobson aged 16 & 17

I do, however, have some reservations regarding the conviction of one of the defendants, Gary Dobson (on right aged 17 in image, on left is Norris aged 16). In 1994, Dobson was tried before a jury in a private conviction for the murder of Lawrence and was acquitted. How then, is it that Dobson could face a second trial for precisely the same offence? It is a long established legal principle, known as the rule of double jeopardy, that a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. In 2001 the UK government sought to change the law through the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which came to have the force of law in 2005, enabling the retrial of a person previously convicted of a serious criminal offence if there is new and compelling evidence and it is in the interests of justice for a trial to be made. In such cases it is in the power of the Court of Appeal to quash the original acquittal and order a retrial. In May 2011 the Court of Appeal did precisely that in respect to Dobson.

The change in the law was broadly a good one. The case of William Dunlop, who was the first to be retried following a previous acquittal in 1991 for murder is a good example of the law in effect. In this case after his acquittal Dunlop publicly confessed to have murdered Julie Hogg, for which he was convicted of perjury. Following the change in law Dunlop was retried and found guilty of the crime for which he received a life sentence. The new and compelling evidence in this case being the confession of the crime for which he had previously denied culpability. The outcome, it seems to me, being a just one.

But, in the case of Gary Dobson what was this “ new and compelling” evidence? The was no post acquittal confession of guilt nor a new prosecution eye witness who had witnessed the crime. The “new” evidence was forensic evidence which had been in the police’s possession for years! Far from being new evidence, this was old evidence which could and should have been identified by the initial investigation. An investigation, it should be remembered, that when it knew in the immediate aftermath of the crime Norris and Dobson were prime suspects, sat by and watched them apparently leave the house with bin liners full of possibly bloodstained clothes about which the police did precisely nothing.

I understand that the forensic tests are arguably new in the sense that they offer an avenue of investigation that was arguably not available to the initial investigation (as it is laughably called) but then, even if it had been, does anyone really think it would have made an iota of difference? And that is why the conviction, while a good news story, leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. It is not fair that Stephen Lawrences are denied the chance to see justice done because of investigatory ineptitude, but neither is it right that police misconduct not have consequences, such is the importance of professionalism in the work of those tasked with serving the justice system. In this case and, I suspect, many other unreported cases besides (innocent people found guilty and guilty people left not prosecuted) the police let us all down.

As it is, two individuals (out of a likely 5 attackers) have been convicted of a murder they committed 18 years previously, that is good news. But the most fitting commentary comes, I think, from Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence. Asked whether she celebrated the court’s verdict she responded in a statement outside the court “How can I celebrate when my son lies buried? … Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.”

She is right.

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  • The double jeopardy law is a good framework because it provides closure. Without it the legal system would become caught up in an endless cycle of charge, trial, acquittal, appeal and counter-charge.

    However, advances in forensic science (e.g. DNA profiling) have made it possible for an acquittal previously thought sound to be reasonably challenged without suspicion of malice on the part of the prosecution.

    You’re right to raise concerns with regard to the Lawrence case, since the previous failure to convict was down to the incompetence of the investigators rather than a lack of evidence, but that also needs to be weighed against the suffering of the victim and his family. I think justice was done in this instance.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that a confession is a sound basis for re-trying a previously acquitted suspect. Confessions are notoriously unreliable, as are other forms of eyewitness evidence, so unless the confessor can produce concrete evidence that he did in fact commit the crime, his acquittal should stand.