Lawrence Suspects' Interview: Suddenly, they start to remember

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THEY GAZED steadily at the camera, answered all questions without hesitation and shook their heads, more in sorrow than in anger, at suggestions that they had the slightest tendency towards violence.

The five men suspected of committing Britain's most notorious racist murder finally broke their silence last night - not in a police station, not at the inquest, not at the public inquiry, but in the gentler surroundings of a television studio.

For six years, Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight, all 23, and Jamie Acourt and David Norris, 22, refused to answer questions about that spring night in 1993 when Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, was stabbed to death by a gang of thugs.

Then they decided it was suddenly time to put their side of the story. After taking advice from Max Clifford, the public relations guru, they recorded interviews with Martin Bashir, broadcast last night for the launch programme of ITV's current affairs flagship, Tonight.

The five were each asked the burning question that lawyers at Sir William Macpherson's inquiry were prevented by a High Court ruling from putting to them - did they murder Stephen Lawrence?

Unsurprisingly, all of them denied it. "You're entitled to your opinion, Martin," intoned Norris, gravely, "and 99 per cent of this country believe the same thing. But as long as I know in my heart the truth, that's all that counts for me."

The programme was not without its revelations. Norris remembered, for the first time, where he was on the nightStephen was killed - at his girlfriend Cheryl's house in Eltham, south-east London, half a mile from the murder scene.

What a difference nine months and a few words of advice from Mr Clifford can make.

At the inquiry last June, the men were truculent and combative, apparently suffering from collective amnesia. Last night, they were courteous, soft- spoken and anxious to help. They addressed Mr Bashir as "Martin". They even came up with some answers.

How did Neil, for instance, account for the two anonymous letters naming him and the others as Stephen's killers? What a coincidence that one was found on the windscreen of a police car, he replied cheerfully.

"Are you suggesting the police wrote them?" asked Mr Bashir. "They could have done, yes," said Neil.

Dobson was asked why his former girlfriend, Michelle Casserley, had named them as the killers in her diary. Dobson was charitable. "I really can't say why she would say anything like that," he said. "Girls say silly things - everyone says silly things sometimes."

The men have apparently undergone not only personality transplants, but also image makeovers. At the public inquiry, they wore sharp suits and shades, gangster-style. On television, they were casually dressed in open-necked shirts and woollen jumpers (Neil, Jamie, Norris), tank- top (Knight) or Polo shirt (Dobson).

Had you been seeing them for the first time, you could almost have believed Dobson's description of them in 1993 as "rascals" and "lovable rogues".

The ethics of providing them with a platform on national television have been debated angrily in recent days.

Mr Bashir, who made his name interviewing Diana, Princess of Wales about her loveless marriage, was clearly determined not to give them an easy ride. He adopted a sceptical tone, interrupted often and was quick to point out irreconcilable differences in the men's accounts. Those differences included the Acourts' recollections of when they first learnt about the murder. Jamie said he heard it on the news the next day; Neil said they were told about it that night.

Jamie looked sorrowful when asked about the men's swaggering stance outside the inquiry. Their behaviour had been "disgusting", he agreed. Asked why he had been linked to a series of violent attacks, he said: "These are all things that have been twisted to make me look like the bad guy."

Norris, in whose bedroom drawer a claw hammer attached to a strap was found, said: "I have never been violent, Martin. I've got a bit of a short temper, but as far as violence goes, no."

Neil listened carefully as extreme racist comments he made on a police surveillance video were read out: "That's banter, that's exactly what it is."

Dobson, asked if he was prepared to apologise to black people for using racist language, said: "If they are offended by my words and actions in that video, then yes, I do apologise."

Neil agreed that, in a conflict, he was prepared to "fight fire with fire". But all that the five of them wanted, he said, in tones of wounded dignity, was "for people to hear us fairly".

ITV is congratulating itself on a journalistic coup and there is no doubt that the interviews made compelling television. But for many people, they also left a nasty taste in the mouth that will persist long after the publicity has subsided.

Main Points

All five denied involvement in Stephen Lawrence's murder

They claim police concocted a key piece of evidence - an anonymous hand-written note naming them as suspects

Neil Acourt and Gary Dobson said they heard of the killing on the night but Jamie Acourt, who was with them, said he did not

David Norris said he was three miles nearer to the murder scene than was previously thought