In the Media

Stephen Lawrence verdict is about society as much as his murderers | Michael Mansfield

PUBLISHED January 3, 2012

Doreen and Neville Lawrence have exposed an arrogance of unaccountability infecting so many aspects of our democracy

It would be easy to view the Stephen Lawrence verdicts as some kind of definitive line in the sand. This would seriously underestimate and undervalue the far bigger verdict of which they are a part ? albeit an extraordinarily significant part. In the 19 years since April 1993, an uncomfortable tapestry of truth has been gradually uncovered and articulated, touching all our lives, far beyond Well Hall Road in south-east London where the murder was committed. This rolling revelation is in large measure the result of the single-minded determination of Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville, who have exposed an "arrogance of unaccountability" that has infected so many aspects of our democracy, from politicians right through to the perpetrators of crime.

It took the jury's verdict at the inquest in 1997 to prick the conscience of the nation: unlawful killing in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths. In the wake of this, the report of a judicial public inquiry published in February 1999 presented a paradigm shift in our appreciation of racism and the criminal justice system. There were 70 recommendations. The questioning that lay behind them, and their subsequent incremental implementation, have been due to the diligence of Doreen, inspired as her book makes clear by Maya Angelou's poem Still I Rise.

The terms of reference for the inquiry were specific and focused upon "matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence ? in order to identify the lessons to be learned ?". They did not include the guilt or innocence of the five suspects. Nevertheless the panel paused to reflect on them, two of whom were the defendants whose trial had just finished:

"These men are not proved to have been the murderers of Stephen Lawrence. We are unable to reach any such conclusion upon the evidence, and no fresh evidence is likely to emerge against them now. They remain, however, prime suspects. And the nature of them in 1994, and indeed during their limited testimony in 1998, must surely make us all determined that by education, family and community influence, proper policing and all available means society does all it can to ensure that the minds of present and future generations are not allowed to become violent and maliciously prejudiced."

The nature of them was revealed in covert police recordings in Gary Dobson's flat in 1994. They make chilling viewing. It is of interest that the jury in the trial asked to see extracts of this again during its deliberations. One has David Norris proclaiming arrogantly how he would skin a black person alive, torture him and set him alight. Neil Acourt, who was not on trial, shares these sentiments in another passage: "I reckon that every nigger should be chopped up and ? left with nothing but stumps." Such unmitigated bigotry was recorded over a period of three weeks.

These truths have to be confronted not only by the law setting a clear agenda, but also by the manner in which we conduct ourselves towards one another as a matter of daily routine. It has been often observed that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", and this has particular resonance in the light of the recent murder in Salford.

The bigger Lawrence verdict, therefore, has underpinned the need for sanctions relating to incitement to racial hatred, and crimes aggravated by racial motivation. It has empowered the ordinary citizen in the belief that change can be effected, and that accountability cannot be left to the ballot box, let alone to the assurances of those in positions of power.

It is the sincere belief of everyone involved in this struggle for justice that the risk of a repetition has been substantially reduced by the various initiatives that have pushed the boundaries at each stage. This belief has created the opportunity for responsive and responsible governance answerable to the people. Above all, for the Lawrences it has led to a determination to revisit the case in depth, to persevere in a way that could not have been envisaged by the inquiry panel, nor by the perpetrators.

It has demonstrated that painstaking and systematic scientific examination of the crime scene and its products, undertaken promptly and securely, with increasingly specialised techniques of retrieval and analysis, is a fundamental prosecutorial prerequisite ? and it has shaken entrenched assumptions about what and where relevant material is capable of being found.

The real travesty remains, however, that had the police acted quickly upon the detailed information that was forthcoming in the first 24 hours about the identities of the potential perpetrators, the exhaustive trawl for trace evidence some 13 years later could have been averted.

There still remains more work to do not only to track the outstanding attackers, but for all of us to share responsibility for maintaining a level of vigilance and accountability so sorely lacking in the past. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds