Lawrence police chief admits error

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THE senior detective who led the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation admitted yesterday that until very recently he did not understand the legal grounds on which police officers can arrest suspects.

Former detective superintendent Brian Weeden, who retired in 1994 after 30 years in the force, told the public inquiry into Stephen's death that he had believed that hard evidence was required before arrests could be made. It was only after taking legal advice earlier this year while preparing a statement for the public inquiry, he said, that it became clear to him that reasonable grounds for suspicion were sufficient.

The inquiry has heard that the five white youths alleged to have stabbed Stephen in a racist attack in Eltham, south-east London, in 1993 were named by numerous informants in the first 48 hours. But they were not arrested for at least a fortnight and attempts to prosecute them were unsuccessful.

Mr Weeden, who led the murder investigation for 14 months, said yesterday that his strategy had been to wait for evidence before moving in. "I had never before in any murder case arrested anyone without evidence, as opposed to information," he said.

Michael Mansfield QC, counsel for the Lawrence family, pointed out that he had given a different explanation when interviewed by Kent police officers on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority last year.

"You maintained, and you only recently shifted, that not only did you want evidence, you did not have the power to arrest until you had evidence. That was the legal position as you saw it," he said. "That's perfectly true," Mr Weeden replied.

Mr Mansfield asked: "Do you not find it rather disturbing that it has taken all this time for you to recognise a fairly basic tenet of criminal law?"

"I think it's regrettable," he replied.

Mr Weeden denied that when he finally decided to make arrests, it was in response to "extraneous pressures" such as a high-profile meeting in London the previous day between the Lawrences and President Nelson Mandela.

"There was pressure right from the very beginning. There was considerable media interest in the case; there was interest also from the Home Office; Members of Parliament were asking questions; television crews were virtually camping on the doorstep," he said.

He admitted, however, that during his period in charge of the case, at least 20 major errors and omissions were made.

Questioned about the handling of a key witness known only as B, who claimed to have seen the attack on Stephen from the top of a bus, Mr Weeden said he had been "staggered" to learn recently that details of B's identity and address were given to one of his detectives early on.

The inquiry continues today.