Crime: Immunity promised to witnesses in Lawrence case

A long-awaited public inquiry into the race killing of black student Stephen Lawrence held its first sitting yesterday. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, was there to hear the terms of reference.

Evidence given at the public inquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence, 18, in 1993, including any testimonies by his killers, cannot be used in a criminal prosecution, the inquiry chairman announced yesterday.

Sir William Macpherson of Cluy, who is heading the inquiry, disclosed at the preliminary hearing in Woolwich, south-east London, yesterday that as with other similar public investigations no evidence, either written or spoken, can be used against the witness in any criminal proceedings. In some extreme cases witnesses may also be allowed to remain anonymous. The inquiry has been given powers to summon any person or obtain any documents. Refusal to appeal before the inquiry could lead to imprisonment.

Sir William said: "I should stress that this inquiry does not involve litigation or claims made between parties. Nor will the inquiry be a trial or retrial of any person or persons."

He added that the inquiry would be "inquisitorial" and involve some brief cross-examinations. An advertising campaign asking for witnesses to give evidence will be launched in the next few weeks. The offer of immunity for statements provided during the hearing and anonymity for some witnesses is aimed at encouraging more people to come forward to help break the apparent "wall of silence" surrounding the case.

The inquiry, which was adjourned until next February so that police reports and further evidence can be collated, was ordered by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to examine the circumstances surrounding the killing and to consider what lessons can be learned for future investigations and prosecutions of racially motivated crimes.

As with previous public inquiries, the evidence provided by witnesses cannot be used to bring criminal charges against them unless they are found to have lied. The decision to give immunity has been authorised by the Attorney-General. However, information or a confession obtained outside the hearing could be used in a prosecution.

There is almost no chance now of a successful conviction against the five white youths who stabbed Stephen, 18, to death at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, in 1993, according to Chris Boothman, head of law at the Commission Racial Equality.

An unsuccessful private prosecution was brought against five white youths by the Lawrence family. The youths were branded "murderers" by national newspapers after they refused to give evidence at an inquest which found that Stephen had been unlawfully killed during an unprovoked racist attack.

Mr Boothman, at the hearing yesterday, said: "Realistically no one is going to be prosecuted for this crime and that's not much of an issue now there's been the failed prosecutions. We should be looking to make sure that this does not happen to any other families."

Also speaking at the hearing, Stephen's father, Neville Lawrence, said: "I'm pleased to see they have granted immunity to anyone who wants to come forward and give evidence. Perhaps now we might get to the bottom of what happened."

Imran Khan, the family solicitor, added: "There's been a wall of silence around this particular murder, or that's what's claimed.

"I hope that immunity by this inquiry will change that. The family feels that now for the first time people perhaps may come forward and shed some light on what happened four years ago."

The inquiry will not start until the beginning of February when an investigation by Kent Police into the Metropolitan Police's handling of the affair will be completed, along with a separate inquiry by the Police Complaints Authority.