BY ANY standards, the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago has seared itself into British criminal history.
There are many reasons why it has left an indelible stain. That it has taken this time – after two failed prosecutions and a four-year long “cold case” review – to secure two convictions is appalling. That it exposed incompetence and ineptitude on the part of the police – this was the case that brought the charge of institutional racism to the door of the Metropolitan Police – is another reason why it cannot be forgotten. Above all, it has cast an unsparing light on the vicious racism that fuelled this hideous crime and tainted the pursuit of justice.
But there are also many positive reasons why this case should be remembered. First, the convictions – when they finally came – give at least partial closure for the Lawrence family who fought extraordinarily brave and persistent campaign to see the perpetrators brought to justice. It is a success for those forensic scientists whose meticulous examination of microscopic evidence involving clothing fibres and a single hair established the connection between Lawrence and his killers.
It is a victory for those who have pressed for reform of the police and for a rooting out of the culture of complacency against race crime that marked this case at the outset. Police attitudes and behaviour from top to bottom have, it is hoped, been changed. It brought a major change to the criminal justice system south of the Border through reform of the double jeopardy rule. And it is a vindication, too, of the role of campaigning journalism that kept this case in the public spotlight and put critical evidence in the public domain.
But even after the end of this trial, the case cannot be considered closed. Five or six men were initially identified as “prime suspects”, and the police must continue to try to bring the others to justice. And for all that the UK proclaims itself a tolerant and indeed successful example of tolerant multi-culturalism, appalling race hate crimes are still in evidence. That racial assault is a formal crime has in no way resulted in its eradication.
Among the many bleak and dark aspects of this case was the absence, even after so long a time between the crime and the subsequent trial with its compelling evidence, of any note of apology or contrition on the part of the defendants. That there was no flicker of recognition on their part that they had done anything wrong may be due in large part to the deep-seated racism that fuelled the stabbing – indeed, one had a previous conviction for racially threatening behaviour. Add to this what Michael Mansfield, QC for the family in an earlier trial, described as “dishonesty, incompetence and obfuscation”, and the Stephen Lawrence case could not but become the most powerful argument for reform that it did, and for the pursuit of justice, no matter how long that takes.