Stephen Lawrence case: 'turning point' in Britain's racism debate

The killing of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager in London, brought forward issues of racism in Britain's police forces and revolutionized their policing practices. 

Crown Prosecution Service/AP
These are undated photos released by England's Crown Prosecution Service of Gary Dobson (l.) and David Norris, who were found guilty of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was killed in a racist attack by a gang of youths in Eltham, south east London in April 1993.
Family photo/AP
Undated family photo of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. Gary Dobson and David Norris have been found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence at the Old Bailey in London on Tuesday. Lawrence was killed in a racist attack by a gang of youths in Eltham, south east London in April 1993.

Two men found guilty in a notorious racially motivated murder of a black teenager in London were today jailed for a total of 29 years. The case, which dogged the country’s largest police force for nearly two decades, raised the issue of police racism and revolutionized policing practices, especially in London.

Gary Dobson and David Norris, both white, were found guilty yesterday in the killing of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was attacked while waiting at a bus stop in April 1993 by a group of white youths shouting racist insults.

Five young men, including the two sentenced today, were arrested in the weeks after the killing after a series of tipoffs from the public. However, none of them were convicted at the time, despite both public proceedings and a private prosecution requested by Mr. Lawrence's parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, when the initial case was abandoned. 

A 1997 police report – prompted by a complaint from the Lawrences – concluded that there were "significant weaknesses, omissions, and lost opportunities" in the police investigation into Mr. Lawrence's killing. The growing public and media criticism of the handling of the case prompted the Home secretary to order a more wide-ranging inquiry by Judge Sir William Macpherson two years later that made 70 recommendations for improvement, many of which dealt with police racism. 

Recommendations included increasing the number of ethnic minority officers, classifying the use of racist language in private as an offense, setting up a race advisory board in London, and scrapping the Britain's "double-jeopardy" law, which prevents a person from being tried twice for the same offense.

“Stephen Lawrence’s murder was a turning point for Britain; it changed us all. Most people today see racial prejudice as a secular sin that is not to be tolerated," said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in a statement.

Tim Newburn, a professor and head of the social policy department at the London School of Economics, said the Lawrence killing has made it "completely unacceptable" for police to fail to investigate a serious crime against a minority victim as well as they would a white victim.

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“Macpherson did force some police to confront change – but there have always been those who have known the service has to reform … . Deliberate or unwitting racism in a police inquiry now, I think, would be totally unacceptable."

Judge Justice Treacy, who presided over the case at the Old Bailey courthouse, described the murder as a "terrible and evil crime" and sentenced Mr. Dobson to 15 years and two months in prison and Mr. Norris to 14 years and three months. Because the men were juveniles at the time – they were 17 years old and 16 years old, respectively – they received a lesser sentence than they otherwise would have.

Mr. Macpherson concluded that the police inquiry was "marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers." The detectives have also been accused of being too close to the families of the five accused men, who lived in a white, working-class area of London.

Both Treacy and Neville Lawrence urged the police to continue the murder investigation. In a statement, Neville Lawrence – who has since split from his wife – said, “I’m conscious of the fact that there were five or six attackers that night. I do not think I'll be able to rest until they are all brought to justice.”

The convictions were welcome by those on both sides of the political divide. The Daily Mail earned praise for its unlikely campaign to secure prosecutions. In 1997, the normally right-leaning, middle-class newspaper published the names and pictures of the five suspects on its front page under the headline "murderers," urging them to sue if it was wrong.

The men did not sue. The story stirred up a whirlwind of publicity and prompted the Macpherson report, which changed the face of British policing and eventually led to today’s sentencing. Praise for The Daily Mail, coming from figures as disparate and powerful as Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband, inundated its website – at a time when British journalism is under intense scrutiny as a result of the past year's phone hacking scandal.

Despite the initial flawed inquiry, most observers agree Britain has made great strides in reducing racism and ethnic tension within the police forces since the Macpherson report. But while today's sentencing was welcomed, not all observers are satisfied with the outcome.

Activist Lee Jasper, a policy adviser on on equality issues to former mayor Ken Livingstone, wrote on his web site: “I believe that British justice stands convicted, at least in the court of black public opinion, as incapable of offering justice to black people either as victims of crime or as suspects. Had the police simply done their job in 1993, all those responsible would have been arrested and convicted.”

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