Jail terms handed down to Gary Dobson and David Norris were longest available to Mr Justice Treacy
Murder most horrid, this undoubtedly was ? unprovoked, thuggish and motivated by the vilest strain of race hatred. Stephen Lawrence's two convicted killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, entered the Old Bailey yesterday with deserved expectations of a punishment from the very stiff end of the available spectrum. The spectrum in question, however, was not what it might have been, principally because the 1993 crime took place when these two thirty-somethings were both juveniles. Although this was one of those rare crimes that truly shocked a nation, the minimum tariffs of 15 years and 14 years are not especially long by the standards of adult murderers in our punishing age.
Anticipating a backlash, the judge, Mr Justice Treacy, explained how parliament had tied his hands against being tougher. Had he been less worried about the slings and arrows hurled at judges deemed soft, he might also have explained that the ordinary principles of justice also precluded any other outcome. After all, what made the Lawrence case not merely shocking but shaming was the failure of the prosecuting authorities to nail this terrible crime in the ordinary way, over the course of 18 years. Criminal justice failed to service a bereaved family in the ordinary way because of a systemic failure to get to grips with racism. Even now, with two convictions achieved, the case continues to be haunted by the lack of ordinary justice: as the judge said, three or four others who formed part of the murderous gang remain at large. Bringing them to book must now be the ambition. In a case where ordinary expectations have been frustrated at every pass, what mattered was that Dobson and Norris should face what they had for so long evaded: the force of the ordinary law.
That, of course, does not provide for punishments to be determined retroactively ? if offences and penalties could be cooked up post-hoc, no citizen would know where they stood. The Lawrence murder took place before the 2003 legislation that specified various minimum tariffs for murder, so sentences had instead to be based on past precedent. It also predated the specific requirement to consider racial aggravation in sentencing, although the judge's remarks made clear that the evidence of this motive contributed to the general heinousness of the crime. The gap between the sentences given and the 30-years plus which Dobson and Norris might get for committing the same crime this week was further widened by their juvenility at the time. This would not have been the same contentious issue, had the pair been tried at the time, when their youth was evident. Outside the US ? which continues to sentence children to life without parole, and which alone with Sudan refuses to ratify the convention on the rights of the child ? the spirit of humanity is deemed to require giving the young some hope of redemption. But it would of course have been preferable if justice had not been deferred to the point where the culprits were adults with hard lives etched deep into their faces. It was unsettling to see these brutal men being afforded children's protections, yet inescapably right. The just punishments had to fit the youths who actually committed the crime, not the men they later became.
Last but not least, it must be remembered that 15 years in prison is a very considerable punishment. Even once it is spent, release will remain conditional on conduct, and freedom will come with conditions whose breach could see it revoked. These are the ordinary terms of a life sentence. Stephen's parents showed dignity in their remarks yesterday, concentrating less on the supposed leniency of the sentences, and more on the fact that these sentences flowed from the very laws which they have for so long struggled to see applied. It is justice shamefully late, but otherwise recognisable, ordinary justice. That is the fitting way to prove the equal worth of the life of this murdered black boy.