The Lawrence Report: The Suspects - Did they kill him? We may never find out

THEIR MOTHERS say they didn't do it; most of the rest of the world thinks they did. They have wriggled and squirmed to avoid being asked. Innocent, yet guilty: this is the peculiar twilight status of the five chief suspects in the Lawrence case.

Did they kill Stephen Lawrence? We will probably never know. They are not about to confess and there is little chance, six years on, of new evidence emerging.

Three of them - Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight, all 23 - were acquitted in 1996 after a private prosecution by Stephen's family. The other two - Jamie Acourt and David Norris, both 22 - were not tried because of lack of evidence.

Why then, does the finger of suspicion point so strongly at these five men? For one thing, witnesses saw them in the area before Stephen was stabbed. One claims to have seen some of them at home later that night, stripped to the waist, with wet hair, possibly even washing a knife.

Second, there is their reputation. The five were members of a teenage gang that had been terrorising council estates in Eltham, the south-east London suburb where Stephen was killed. Three were from families with criminal connections; Norris's father, Clifford, was a local gangster who associated with uncles of the Acourt brothers.

The group carried knives and had allegedly been involved, between them, in a dozen previous incidents of violence, several of which were apparently racially motivated.

Within 48 hours of Stephen's murder, they had been named by 26 different sources. A police surveillance video exposed them as violent racists.

The public conduct of the five throughout this saga has only served to reinforce suspicions: their mocking swagger, effectively sticking two fingers up at society; their aggression outside the public inquiry, hatred etched on their faces; above all, their refusal to answer questions about the murder.

Rather than using the inquest to clear their names, they invoked their right to remain silent and secured a High Court ruling shielding them from difficult questions.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that the five have been convicted in the court of public opinion. Indeed, the Daily Mail even took the unprecedented step of naming them as Stephen's murderers on its front page two years ago.

And yet the issue is not as clear cut as it might seem. A fortnight ago, in a startling development, it emerged that police now believe Dobson and Knight to be innocent.

There are said to be several new suspects, some of whom fit the description of a blond youth seen by Duwayne Brooks, Stephen's friend.

To focus only on the five was always simplistic. At the time of the murder, the Acourt brothers and Norris - still regarded as prime suspects by police - headed a gang of white youths with vicious reputations. Members included Charlie Martin and Danny Caetano, currently in jail for attempting to murder a rival gang member after a row on a caravan site near Rochester in Kent. The trial was told that they tried, quite literally, to skin their victim alive.

There were other suspects. Indeed, the public inquiry report castigates the Lawrence detectives for prematurely eliminating as many as eight, including the Lamb twins, Bradley and Scott, half brothers of the Acourts, and "Blue" Stuart, one of their cousins.

But this all comes too late for Dobson and Knight, for ever tainted by their association with Stephen's murder - although in Eltham the notoriety lends them a certain kudos. They are not ostracised, but many in the community keep their distance.

The five still socialise together and drink in pubs such as the Olde Greyhound in Eltham High Street. The Acourts are occasional disc jockeys at a nightclub, Dorringtons, near the Blackwall Tunnel. Jamie plays football some Saturdays for Blackheath Wanderers' second team and Neil goes fly- fishing in gravel pits around Deptford. None of them has a job; Dobson and Knight draw the dole.

Reports that the five have an affluent lifestyle are fanciful. Their clothes have the look of Top Man, Knight drives a D-registration Peugeot 205, and the P-registration Clio in which the Acourts are sometimes seen probably belongs to their mother or sister, judging by the furry hedgehog on the dashboard.

The question at the end of the day is this: will anybody ever serve time for Stephen's murder? Of the three remaining prime suspects, Neil Acourt has already been tried and acquitted, and the other two could argue that publicity has deprived them of a fair trial. They may not be beyond the reach of justice, though.

A new squad of detectives, led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve, is examining allegations that they were involved in a series of violent attacks in the area before Stephen was killed.

Meanwhile, the revelation that police are looking at several new murder suspects raises the prospect of a trial unprejudiced by prior publicity.

Gathering evidence so long after the event would be difficult, but Mr Grieve regards the Lawrence case as a personal challenge. If he fails, a very nasty bunch of people will have got away with murder.

JAMIE ACOURT Arrested aged 16 in May 1993 but case against him never made it past committal hearings. Lived with his brother on the Brook Estate in Eltham.

GARY DOBSON

Told police contradictory stories about his movements on the night of the murder. Private prosecution against him also collapsed. Police found a CS gas canister at his home.

NEIL ACOURT

Identified as one of the killers by Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks. Covert police footage showed him to be a violent racist. Never sent for trial because the CPS ruled there was insufficient evidence.

LUKE KNIGHT

Also identified by Duwayne Brooks as one of the attackers. Aged 16 when arrested in June 1993 but not charged because of insufficient evidence. Private prosecution collapsed.

DAVID NORRIS

Son of the notorious London gangster, Clifford Norris, now in jail for gun and drug offences. The private prosecution against him never made it past the committal stage.

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