The killers of Damilola Taylor were finally convicted yesterday, nearly six years after the 10-year-old was stabbed to death in a run-down south London estate.
But despite the successful prosecution, investigators came under strong criticism after it emerged that forensic scientists had missed crucial and seemingly obvious evidence obtained within days of the killing. The Home Office has set up an inquiry into the blunders.
The brothers Danny and Ricky Preddie, aged 18 and 19, from Peckham, south London, were convicted of the manslaughter of Damilola, who bled to death after being stabbed in the leg with a broken bottle in November 2000, at a retrial at the Old Bailey. The pair, who were 12 and 13 at the time of the attack, face life terms in prison and will be sentenced later.
Following the convictions, Damilola's parents, Richard and Gloria, said: "We, the family, feel that nobody can ever return our son to us, but it is a great comfort that justice has finally been done for Damilola."
The Preddie brothers had been questioned shortly after the killing, but were released without charge.
Damilola's death was seen as an example of the lawlessness of Britain's most deprived inner-city areas, and the growing danger of gang violence. Scotland Yard devoted huge resources to the hunt for his killers, but an attempted prosecution of four youths in 2002 ended in failure when the police's star witness was condemned as a liarand the case collapsed.
The investigation looked hopeless, until a fresh inquiry uncovered new forensic evidence. The results, which came to the police in March 2004, were "startling".
A forensic laboratory re-examined clothing seized at the time of the killing and discovered spots of Damilola's blood and fibres from his uniform. Amazingly, one of the spots of blood found on the heel of a pair of Danny Preddie's training shoes was large enough to be visible with a naked eye, yet it was not tested by the specialists from the Forensic Science Service. A smaller spot of blood was also found on a sweatshirt belonging to his brother.
A number of fibres were found on clothing, but it emerged that the first lab would not have checked for these unless requested to by a senior police officer. The Forensic Science Service, a Home Office agency at the time, is launching an inquiry. Scotland Yard is also re-examining a number of other unsolved cases to see if other vital forensic evidence could have been missed. The assault on Damilola, who had come to Britain only a few months earlier from Nigeria, may have been a "revenge" attack after an earlier attempt to rob Damilola failed. The 10-year-old was surrounded by a gang of youths in Blakes Road, Peckham, as he made his way from an after-school club at Peckham library, to his home on the run-down North Peckham estate. Someone broke a small, green beer bottle leaving a shard of glass which was used to "juk" or wound Damilola in his left thigh.
The glass cut Damilola's blood vessels and he limped away to die in a filthy stairwell nearby. He was found by a local carpenter, who followed a trail of blood, and cradled Damilola as he said his last words: "I'm OK, I'm OK."
At the time of the killing, Danny was supposed to have been under a 24-hour supervised curfew at a children's home. Yesterday's convictions come after three trials that cost an estimated £16m. Four youths were cleared of murder and other charges in 2002. Hassan Jihad, 20, was cleared in April this year.
The Preddies, who were arrested last year, were also cleared of murder and assault with attempt to rob in April. But a retrial was ordered when the jury at that trial could not agree on a manslaughter charge. After yesterday's conviction, Ricky Preddie shouted at the judge, jury and police: "You're corrupt... you must be mad... you know nothing."
Commander Dave Johnston, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "Today, justice has finally been reached for Damilola. His violent death in 2000 sent shock waves throughout London and beyond. For his family, it was a very personal tragedy played out in a very public arena."