Institutional Racism - the Stephen Lawrence case
22 April 1993 Stephen Lawrence is stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of white youths as he waits at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks. Over the days that follow, police receive several tipoffs. Between them, all sources point to the same suspects: brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson, and David Norris.
25-27 April 1993 Police take a statement from the alleged victim of another stabbing by the same suspects, and confirmation of the Acourts’ address from their mother. The other two suspects have been seen outside the same address. Despite having enough grounds to make arrests, police decide instead to begin surveillance of the suspects’ homes. The surveillance team see the suspects walking out of the house carrying bin bags and driving away, but do not pursue them because they do not have a mobile phone.
4-6 May 1993 Lawrence’s family hold a press conference airing frustrations that not enough is being done to catch the killers. Two days later, they meet Nelson Mandela in London.
7 May - 23 June 1993 The Acourt brothers, Dobson, Norris, and another suspect, Luke Knight, are arrested. Duwayne Brooks identifies Neil Acourt and Knight from an ID parade as part of the gang responsible. The pair are charged with murder, but deny all allegations.
July 1993 Charges against Neil Acourt and Knight are dropped, following a meeting between the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the senior investigating officer. The CPS says the evidence from Brooks is unreliable, after DS Christopher Crawley makes a statement saying Brooks told him he was unsure of those he picked out. Brooks denies saying this.
December 1993 Southwark coroner Sir Montague Levine halts an inquest into Lawrence’s death after the family’s barrister, Michael Mansfield QC, says there is “dramatic” new evidence, believed to include information identifying three new suspects.
April 1994 The CPS says the new evidence is insufficient to support murder charges.
September 1994 Lawrence’s parents, Neville and Doreen, begin a private prosecution against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson. A private prosecution is a standard criminal trial, but not brought by the CPS. Autumn 1994 A second police investigation is launched under the control of Det Supt William Mellish and supported by Commander Perry Nove.
December 1994 Secret video evidence is filmed over several days in Dobson’s flat showing him and Norris making obscene racist remarks. Neil Acourt and Knight are also filmed using violent and racist language. April 1996 The private prosecution against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson begins at the Old Bailey but the trial collapses after Mr Justice Curtis rules identification evidence from Brooks as inadmissible. The three are acquitted and the entering of not guilty verdicts means they cannot be tried again.
February 1997 The coroner’s inquest resumes. Levine swiftly records a verdict of unlawful killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths”. The Lawrence family formally complain to the Police Complaints Authority about the police’s handling of the investigation. On 14 February, the Daily Mail front page displays the names and photographs of the two Acourt brothers, Norris, Knight, and Dobson under the headline: “Murderers”. The paper accuses the men of killing Lawrence and challenges them to sue for libel.
Summer 1997 The home secretary, Jack Straw, meets Lawrence’s parents. His Conservative predecessor, Michael Howard, had refused to see them. The Home Office announces a judicial inquiry to be led by retired high court judge, Sir William Macpherson.
December 1997 A Police Complaints Authority report on the original police investigation of Lawrence’s murder identifies “significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities”. It says there is no evidence of racist conduct by police.
June 1998 The five suspects appear to give evidence at the public inquiry overseen by MacPherson, having been told they will face prosecution otherwise. The inquiry is adjourned for three hours after police fire CS gas on the protesters. Members of the group Nation of Islam storm the building, saying the inquiry is a sham.
July 1998 Metropolitan police anti-corruption investigators are given the name of DS John Davidson, who served on the first murder investigation, by his colleague Neil Putnam. Lawrence’s parents call on the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, to resign for police failings. He makes an unprecedented apology to them, saying: “I am truly sorry that we let you down.”
August 1998 The five suspects are banned from attending home games at their local football club, Charlton Athletic.
February 1999 The Macpherson report finds the police guilty of mistakes and “institutional racism” and makes 70 recommendations on changes to policing and wider public policy. It advises strengthening the Race Relations Act to tackle discrimination. The report also suggests a rethink of the principle of “double jeopardy”, to allow the retrial of acquitted defendants in exceptional circumstances if new evidence emerges of their guilt.
The Macpherson report
April 1999 The five men arrested in 1993 deny involvement in the murder in a TV interview with Martin Bashir. They accuse the programme’s makers, Granada Television, of editing the footage to make them look guilty.
December 2000 The Metropolitan police pay the Lawrence family £320,000 in damages for their failings.
The Guardian publishes claims by former detective Putnam that DS Davidson was linked to Clifford Norris.
September 2002 Norris and Neil Acourt are jailed for 18 months for a racist attack on off-duty black policeman Gareth Reid in 2001. Norris threw a drink and shouted racist abuse from a car driven by Acourt. April 2005 The double jeopardy legal principle, preventing suspects being tried twice for the same crime, is scrapped for certain offences when there is new evidence.
July 2006 A BBC documentary based on claims from Putnam alleges Clifford Norris may have paid DS Davidson to be kept one step ahead of the investigation. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) finds no evidence of police corruption or dishonest links between Norris and DS Davidson. February 2008 Doreen Lawrence opens an architecture centre named after her son. The centre is vandalised four times within two weeks of opening, in suspected racially motivated attacks.
May 2011 The court of appeal agrees that Dobson’s 1996 acquittal for the murder can be quashed in the face of new forensic evidence.
November 2011 The trial of Dobson and Norris for Lawrence’s murder begins at the Old Bailey. Mr Justice Treacy tells the jury they must disregard previous publicity and “start this case with a clean state”. The court hears that Lawrence’s DNA was found on the defendants’ clothes.
January 2012 Dobson and Norris are found guilty of murder, 18 years after the event. The new evidence includes a blood spot on Dobson’s jacket – with a one in a billion chance of the blood coming from anyone other than Lawrence – and two hairs belonging to Lawrence found in an evidence bag recovered from Norris’s bedroom. The covert video evidence from the 1990s is revealed to show Norris talking about “skinning” black people and setting them alight. Both men receive life sentences. In a statement read out by his solicitors, Neville Lawrence says he is “full of joy and relief” at the conviction.
June 2013 The Guardian and Channel 4 Dispatches reveal claims by Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer-turned-whistleblower, that he was sent to spy on the Lawrence family to find “dirt” on them in the period shortly after the murder in April 1993. He claims senior officers deliberately withheld this information from the Macpherson inquiry.
March 2014 A major review by Mark Ellison QC finds that a Metropolitan police “spy” was working within the “Lawrence family camp” during the course of the judicial inquiry into matters arising from his death.
October 2015 The National Crime Agency announces the Metropolitan police are being investigated for alleged corruption in the initial 1993 murder investigation.
March 2016 The IPCC finds that a former chief of the Met police counter-terror command, Richard Walton, who controversially met an undercover officer in 1998 during the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, would have faced disciplinary proceedings if he had not been allowed to retire. Walton allegedly “obtained information pertaining to the Lawrence family and their supporters, potentially undermining the inquiry and public confidence”. 11 April 2018 Scotland Yard admits it has no new lines of inquiry in the investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It says it is considering closing the case, but will wait until after the broadcast of a three-part BBC documentary, Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation, to see if any new leads come forward.