Lawrence officer ruled out 8 suspects

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THE DETECTIVE who led the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation for the first 15 months has been criticised by the public inquiry for prematurely ruling out up to eight suspects.

The inquiry has also concluded that Detective Superintendent Brian Weeden's decision to make arrests a fortnight after the murder in 1993 was probably influenced by a high-profile meeting between Stephen's family and the South African President, Nelson Mandela.

Details of the criticisms of Mr Weeden emerged yesterday after he pulled out of a BBC programme in which he and three other senior officers in the Lawrence case had agreed to be interviewed for the first time.

The 40-minute programme was to have been broadcast the day after publication next week of the inquiry report by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny.

Detective Superintendent Ian Crampton, who was in charge of the case for the first 72 hours, Detective Chief Superintendent William Ilsley, who had overall responsibility, and Detective Chief Superintendent Roderick Barker, author of an internal review, had also agreed to be interviewed.

Several meetings were held with the four officers, who are all retired. But yesterday Mr Weeden withdrew without giving a reason, forcing the BBC to abandon the project.

Mr Weeden was one of 23 officers named by The Independent yesterday as facing criticism in the report. A letter from the inquiry's lawyers has warned him he will be criticised on 13 counts.

It was revealed last week that detectives now believe that two of the five prime murder suspects, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight, were not involved, and that they are focusing on up to three new suspects.

The letter names up to eight suspects who, it says, Mr Weeden "eliminated ... without proper investigation".

It says he failed to use his own judgement when he took over from Mr Crampton, thus perpetuating the "fundamental error" of delaying arrests.

Mr Weeden "gave an unsatisfactory explanation" for his decision finally to make arrests, "a probability being that such decision was influenced by outside pressures". This refers to a meeting that took place on the day he made the decision, at which President Mandela told Stephen's family: "I'm deeply touched by the brutality of this murder. It's something we are all too used to in South Africa, where black lives are cheap."

The letter states that Mr Weeden will also be criticised for his failure "to know or understand the simple legal principle that reasonable suspicion can justify arrest". He told the public inquiry that he believed he needed evidence to arrest.