A plumber fought back tears of relief yesterday after he was cleared of making a racist remark while he passed the pavement memorial to murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Nicholas Atkins, 36, was alleged to have shouted the words "best thing that could have happened" at a number of people marking the tenth anniversary of Lawrence's death.
Linda Bellos, a former leader of Lambeth Council and a black rights activist, said she was placing some roses at the site in Well Hall Road, Eltham, south London, when the allegedly "hostile and "malicious" comment was made.
When she looked up she spotted a red van driving past with Mr Atkins leaning out of the window. One of her friends, Caroline Jones, a management consultant, told Blackfriars Crown Court in London that she was "sickened and horrified" by what she heard. The women took down the number plate and reported the matter to police, who arrested Mr Atkins. But Mr Atkins of Barr Road, Gravesend, Kent denied any wrongdoing. He told the jury, consisting of five women and seven men, that he might have made such a comment as he was driven past the memorial on April 22 this year, but that it was not said in a racist context.
The plumber, who said he did not even know it was the tenth anniversary of Stephen's stabbing by a gang of white men, insisted any remark like that would have been part of an innocent conversation with the driver of the van he was in.
The jury agreed and took less than an hour to acquit him of one count of causing racially aggravated alarm or distress.
Mr Atkins, who bowed his head in relief at the unanimous verdict, said: "It has been a nightmare for me, my wife and family over the past few months, an absolute nightmare. I feel totally vindicated."