Lawrence suspects win legal review

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The Independent Online
The five men suspected of murdering Stephen Lawrence yesterday won the first stage of a legal battle against attempts to force them to attend a public inquiry and answer questions about whether they killed him.

Lawyers for the five, who had been summonsed to appear before the inquiry into Stephen's death on Monday, were granted leave at the High Court to seek judicial review of the ruling requiring them to attend. During yesterday's application before Mr Justice Laws, it emerged that the inquiry's barristers intend to question them directly about their alleged involvement in the racially motivated murder in 1993.

The inquiry will now call other witnesses next week while awaiting the outcome of the judicial review on Thursday. If the men fail to secure a ruling in their favour, they are likely to be required to appear during the following week.

The suspects - Neil Acourt, 22, Jamie Acourt, 21, David Norris, 21, Luke Knight, 20, and Gary Dobson, 22 - are to seek further legal aid for Thursday's hearing. Their lawyers' fees for yesterday were met by the taxpayer, after they successfully appealed earlier this week against a decision to refuse them legal aid.

Stephen, a black A-level student, was stabbed to death by a white gang while waiting for a bus in Eltham, south-east London. Neil Acourt, Mr Knight and Mr Dobson were acquitted of the murder in 1996 after the trial judge excluded key identification evidence. The case against the other two was dropped at the committal stage.

Mr Justice Laws said it appeared to him that there was "an arguable question" as to whether the guilt or innocence of the men was a proper matter for the inquiry to consider.

Imran Khan, solicitor for Stephen's parents, said they were disappointed but still expected the five to attend the inquiry "in due course".

Earlier, Charles Conway, barrister for the suspects, told the judge that they would face questions about their alleged involvement in Stephen's murder as well as in two other attacks. They would also be asked, he said, whether they habitually carried knives and whether they considered themselves racists.

Mr Conway argued that such matters were outside the remit of the inquiry, which he said was restricted to the conduct of the police investigation.

"It is our submission in a nutshell that these questions are intended to put these suspects through a criminal trial in full view of the media," he said. "These questions do not relate to the investigation at all."

Edmund Lawson, QC, counsel for the inquiry, argued that the questions were relevant because a major source of potential criticism of police was the fact that they waited two weeks before making arrests.

"If it should transpire that some or all of the five are innocent of any involvement in the murder of Stephen Lawrence, then that would go to the materiality of the police's alleged negligence," he said.

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