Eleven years on, Lawrence affair erupts as mother sues publisher over friend's book

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The Independent Online

The mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence has begun libel proceedings against the publisher of a book written by the man who was a victim of the attack that killed her son.

It is a case that threatens to expose deep rifts between those involved in the Lawrence inquiry. Doreen Lawrence, 51, has accused Duwayne Brooks, who 11 years ago witnessed the racist killing of her son, of writing a book that contains "vicious attacks" on her character, branding her an "uncaring and overbearing" mother. She alleges that the book by Mr Brooks, her son's best friend, suggests she was "partly responsible for Stephen's death".

It is understood that in the face of Mrs Lawrence's legal action the publishers have withdrawn the book from sale. But that will not stop the case going to trial, which is expected to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice later in the year.

The hearing will mark an unsavoury milestone in the Lawrences' campaign to tackle racism in Britain and force the police to face up to their own failings.

The litany of errors made by the Metropolitan Police was laid bare in an 18-month long inquiry held at Hannibal House, Elephant and Castle, south London, into the police's failure to investigate the murder properly. The findings in Sir William Macpherson's 335-page report led to reform of the capital's police force in an attempt to rid it of "institutional racism".

But a new court case will revisit many of the painful memories of 22 April 1993, when Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks were attacked by a racist gang.

Mr Brooks, 17 at the time, not only witnessed the assault on his friend but watched Stephen stagger 130 yards up the road before he collapsed on the pavement. He died in hospital.

The roll-call of potential witnesses at the High Court is expected to include many of those who took part in events that night, including Stephen's father, Neville Lawrence.

Others might be the family's former legal team at the inquiry and at a private prosecution of suspects, Imran Khan and Michael Mansfield QC, as well as police officers involved in the investigation, including the former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Condon.

It would mean that five years after Sir William published his report, the key figures at that inquiry would have to face each other once more - this time across a libel courtroom.

But Mrs Lawrence claims that she has been left with little choice.

In a letter written to Times-Life Entertainment, the publisher of Mr Brooks's book Steve and Me, her solicitors say that Mr and Mrs Lawrence are accused of locking their children out all night and making them go to work even when they were still attending school.

The letter, from the London law firm CCL, further claims that according to the book Mrs Lawrence took her children's earnings and made them go without food.

Her lawyers say the book suggests she imposed a "strict" night curfew on her children and that her "rigid and uncompromising attitude" to the curfew meant she was partly responsible for Stephen's death.

Mrs Lawrence also says that the book implies that her "hostility and insensitivity" jeopardised the private prosecution of her son's alleged killers.

Her lawyers say the book claims that "despite Mr Brooks being a victim of the same vicious racist attack which resulted in Stephen Lawrence's murder and despite him being the most important witness in the case against Stephen's killers, our client treated Mr Brooks with unwarranted and despicable hostility and insensitivity."

This hostility that the book alleges, she says, includes Neville and Doreen Lawrence publicly blaming Mr Brooks for Stephen's death and excluding him from any mention in Stephen's memorial service.

She also says the book accuses the Lawrences of ostracising Mr Brooks and telling others to do the same.

The book's depiction of Mrs Lawrence, she claims, is "extremely" defamatory, leaving her no option but to demand compensation for the damage done to her "feelings and reputation".

Her solicitors say that she could not face reading the book when it was first published in April last year, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Stephen. It was another libel claim, brought last year by another of Stephen's friends, that forced her to confront the book. In that case, Elvin Oduro, a graphic designer, won an estimated five-figure pay-out from the publisherover claims that Mr Oduro had exaggerated the closeness of his relationship with Stephen and that he was hostile to white people. In an out-of-court settlement, Times-Life apologised for any distress caused to Mr Oduro.

Mr Brooks, in an interview with The Independent, was angry that the publisher settled the Oduro case without having all the facts heard in open court. "I will always respect Mrs Lawrence because she is my elder," he said. "Why doesn't she sue me, because those words were not written by the publishers. Every single word in Steve and Me comes from my mouth. But I don't publicly blame [Mrs Lawrence for Stephen's death]. There are so many different things that could have happened [that night], I can't blame anybody. There are a whole series of circumstances that could have happened. The ambulance took too long to come. The police could have taken him to hospital two minutes up the road. They could have offered first aid. The phone box could have had the right address and the right telephone number. We could have walked up the road. We could have not got off the bus."

The libel case is expected to lift the lid on the private acrimony between some of those who took part in the 1998 inquiry. Although much has been achieved since Stephen's death it has not been without personal cost to those involved. Mr and Mrs Lawrence admit that the death of their son took a heavy toll on their relationship. They were divorced in 1999.

Mr Brooks, 28, who still lives in London, believes he has been the subject of police harassment, and has brought a landmark case in the Court of Appeal that has upheld a police duty of care to victims of crime.

But he is still angry about the reaction of Mr and Mrs Lawrence to his book, which was co-written by the Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone.

"The Lawrences were against me I felt because so far as they were concerned if he wasn't with me it wouldn't have happened," he says. "From early on they felt that I was a bad influence on him. But they don't say how, because he used to drink and smoke and I didn't," says Mr Brooks, who uses his spare time to speak to black groups about how to face up to their responsibilities in the community.

Last year Mr Lawrence admitted in a newspaper article that he had banned Mr Brooks from his house because he thought he was a bad influence on his son. After the book was published last year, Mr Lawrence said: "He has no right questioning my parenting. Whether or not I locked the door is my business. I wanted to know my son was safe before I went to sleep."

Mr Brooks says it is "quite strange" that in the solicitors' letter the Lawrences now refer to him as the most important witness in the case. "It wasn't realised at the private prosecution and it hasn't been realised since."

He is adamant that the case should be fully heard in court. "I say to Time Warner, let's go to court, we have got nothing to hide... I have been brought up to be honest and tell the truth, and yes, it does get me in trouble, but I gain respect on the other hand."