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Books: Six years of frustration

The Case of Stephen Lawrence by Brian Cathcart Viking pounds 16.99
W hen Neville Lawrence came to Britain from Jamaica in 1960, at the age of 18, he had bright, Dick Whittington-like expectations: "From what I read and heard, it was the Mother Country and the streets were paved with gold." He couldn't have guessed those streets would one day be paved with his son's blood.

Neville Lawrence might have been less euphoric about the Mother Country had he heard what had happened, just the year before, to Kelso Cochrane, a black Antiguan-born carpenter, stabbed to death in West London in May 1959 by six white youths (the killers were never identified). He might have been more fearful had he read about the 1958 race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill. And he must have felt a chill when the Tory candidate Peter Griffiths won Smethwick for the Tories, in the 1964 General Election, with the slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour vote Labour".

But Neville Lawrence was quiet, stolid and hard-working, and not easily weaned from optimism. He continued to believe in British decency - as did his wife, Doreen, tougher-minded than him but no less of an assimilator. By the time their oldest son Stephen was 18, they'd seen enough of life in the borough of Greenwich - "the race murder capital of Britain" - to have become wary: Rolan Adams, a black 15-year-old stabbed to death by white youths in Thamesmead in 1991, was someone Stephen knew. But like many other black families, the Lawrences were law-abiding, church-going and self-improving (and their son a model student). They didn't feel themselves to be at risk from racist thugs.

Even after Stephen was stabbed to death in April 1993, Neville and Doreen Lawrence tried to go on believing in the Mother Country. "Doesn't John Major know about this?" Doreen kept asking, assuming that, if he did, he'd want to do something. Uncomprehendingly at first, then with growing rage, they saw the police and the justice system betray them. Thanks to Doreen's persistence, the callous incompetence and institutional racism which prevented Stephen's murderers from being brought to trial have now been publicly acknowledged. But it took six years. And the killers are still at large.

For the journalist Brian Cathcart (formerly deputy editor of this paper), telling this familiar story again, in a manner that can keep the reader interested, poses a formidable problem. By and large, it's one which he surmounts. The prose is sometimes a little dry. There are longueurs towards the end, with the Macpherson inquiry (as there must have been at the inquiry itself). There are no sensational new revelations. But his account of the the bungled police investigation in particular is compelling, lucid, and merciless in its detail.

Like the Bulger murder, which preceded it by just two months, the Lawrence murder haunts anyone reading about it with a sense of the different, more innocent ending it might have had. If only Stephen hadn't forgotten he was supposed to go straight home after school (his mother was coming back from a week's course in Birmingham). If only he hadn't gone to the house of his uncle in Grove Park. If only he and Duwayne Brooks hadn't played so many Nintendo games there and left so late, at 10pm. The if onlys multiply on the way home - the alternative routes they might have taken; the buses they missed; the decision to leave the bus stop where they were waiting, by Well Hall roundabout, to see if a 286 was coming; the Walkman Stephen was wearing, which may have caused him to miss (as Duwayne didn't) the noise of the white boys charging at him and their cry of "What? What? Nigger!".

One of Doreen Lawrence's accusations against the police officers at the scene of Stephen's murder is that they "did not want to get their hands dirty with a black man's blood". In reality, with two arteries severed, he was beyond saving. But it's true that the officers were slow to establish how severe his wounds were (Duwayne thought he'd been struck with an iron bar, not a knife), and, despite their first-aid training, made no effort to attend to them. It's true too that the first people on the scene, a couple coming home from a prayer meeting, had initially driven past, afraid this might be a mugger's trap. Even for these good samaritans, the matter of race was inescapable.

Over the next 24 hours, institutional racism manifested itself in various ways. Duwayne Brooks, though distressed and traumatised, was treated with aggression and contempt. The Inspector who asked Neville to identify the body did so with the words: "We've got a young lad in there, he is dead, we don't know who he is but we would like you to clarify that point." The police liaison officers patronised the Lawrences and fobbed off their requests for information. It's surprising to learn from Cathcart's book that the Met realised within hours that this was going to be a sensitive case, likely to provoke outrage in the black community. Nothing in the Met's conduct suggested any such awareness. On the contrary, with its suspicion of the anti-racist groups helping the Lawrences and its hostility to the family's solicitor, Imran Khan, it struck the wrong note from the start.

The problems began with Ian Crampton, who headed the investigation for the first three days without giving it focus or direction. Brian Weeden, who then took over, was slow, placid, and couldn't see the wood for the trees. The incident room was a Kafkaesque nightmare. Almost no one had the skills to use the computer database - the Holmes system - which was supposed to facilitate the search for suspects. Documents piled up. Anonymous tip-offs by phone and letter weren't followed up. Key witnesses went unidentified, or lost their nerve by the time they were questioned, including one, Witness K, who claimed to have visited the house in Bournbrook Road where those responsible hung out, just one hour after the murder - there were five of them, he said, and they'd all just had a bath.

Despite the lackadaisical, uninspired and cynically negligent nature of the investigation, the prime suspects were known within 48 hours: Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris and Gary Dobson had all been named by several sources, not just in connection with Stephen's death but with other recent stabbings. The obvious move would have been to take them in for questioning and/or to put them under surveillance, before vital forensic evidence (shoes, knives, bloodstained clothes, etc) could be removed. But first Crampton and then Weeden chose to wait. Eleven more days passed before any arrests were made. Even then the seeming urgency was an illusion: when officers tried to arrest David Norris, for example, his mum said he was out; it was three more days before he presented himself at a police station.

If the police come out of this appallingly, the Crown Prosecution Service isn't blameless, either. Having decided that the evidence against the suspects was insufficient, it then wrecked the chances of the Lawrence family's private prosecution through its hounding of the vulnerable Duwayne Brooks. Two weeks after Stephen's murder, Duwayne had taken part in a rowdy anti-racist demonstration in Welling. Despite the extenuating circumstances, he was charged with criminal damage and violent disorder. The CPS was urged to drop the case, but chose to pursue it, in the process destroying Duwayne's credibility as a witness in the Lawrence case, since the defence at his own trial - post-traumatic stress disorder - could be used to question his reliability at identification parades.

The other elements of this story are well known: the secret video of the accused in Gary Dobson's flat (a video not made until December 1994, more than 18 months after the murder); the whiff of corruption involving David Norris's gangster father Clifford; the inquest; the inquiry; the vindication in the Macpherson report of almost all that the Lawrences had alleged. Though Cathcart comprehensively rehearses all this, it's often the smaller details that speak loudest: the plastic bags tied round Stephen's hands after his death to preserve scientific evidence (the contents were not analysed for two years); the piece of paper with six names on it which Doreen Lawrence gave to Chief Superintendent Isley and which she saw him fold and refold until it was the size of a postage stamp; her row in the Sainsbury's car park in Woolwich (shortly after Stephen's murder) with two women who called her a "black cunt"; the Bob Marley CD that the self-confessed "nigger-hater" Gary Dobson claimed to have borrowed from the Acourts on the night of Stephen's murder; Neil Acourt's provoking gesture to the crowd (come on then, try it) as he left the Macpherson inquiry; Stephen's memorial stone spattered with white paint.

When the Macpherson report appeared, three months ago, many a brave and recriminating word was spoken about the new, equal-opportunity Britain which the martyrdom of Stephen Lawrence would help us build. But a glance through recent news items isn't encouraging: not a single minority candidate in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, London race crimes running at 30 a day, threatening letters sent to black homes by a group called White Lightning, "Van driver called me an African bastard", and so on. The Mother Country is still no place to bring up children.