Stephen Lawrence: How the case breakthrough came


DCI Clive Driscoll was in church to mark the 15th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence when the breakthrough finally came.

He had been standing behind then Prime Minister Gordon Brown at St-Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square and other senior politicians as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke of the “fragility of our picture of ourselves as a liberal, tolerant and settled society.”

Mr Driscoll was filing out of the church when he got the urgent message to call Ed Jarman, the forensic scientist at the laboratory given the task of scrutinising clothing seized from the suspects.

Previous attempts had yielded little, but this time was different. Mr Jarman told the detective that DNA results were back from a bead of blood thought to have fallen from a jacket seized from Gary Dobson’s home in 1993 and the chance of it not being from Stephen Lawrence was a billion to one.

It provided the crucial link between Dobson and his victim. “It was a surreal moment,” said Mr Driscoll. “To be at the 15th anniversary and to hear that was one of those rare moments you get in life.”

It was the breakthrough the police team craved but it would be another three-and-a-half years before anyone would stand trial. And much had already changed since the night that an innocent young man was killed on a south London street for the sole reason that his skin was black.

The killing

Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death on April 22, 1993, because he unwittingly strayed on to the territory of a murderous racist gang. He was heading home at about 10.30pm with his friend, Duwayne Brooks, when they were spotted by a group of five or six white youths. One shouted “What, what nigger!” and they all gave chase.

The gang surrounded Stephen, delivered two fatal knife blows and then fled. Stephen staggered to his feet and started to run. “He kept asking me what was wrong because he couldn’t run properly,” Mr Brooks said. “Blood was streaming out through his neck and his jacket. We were running and his blood was dripping on the floor.” Stephen Lawrence made it for about 220 yards along Well Hall Road, Eltham, before he collapsed and died.

The murder could have been solved quickly. But it was the catastrophic failure of the police operation in the first few days of the inquiry that has dogged the case for nearly two decades.

Within 48 hours of the murder, numerous people had identified members of the Acourt gang as being responsible for the killing. One informant – who was given the pseudonym James Grant and described in police records as a skinhead – walked into a police station on the evening after the murder and claimed Neil Acourt, his brother Jamie, David Norris and two others were the killers. He told police that they called themselves the Krays and stabbing someone was an initiation rite.

There was other information linking the Acourt gang to the killing: anonymous notes, phone calls and witness statements from house-to-house inquiries. The police failed to arrest any of the men – a “vital and fundamental mistake” according to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report – but launched a surveillance operation outside the home of the Acourt brothers in Bournbrook Road.

It was a disaster. It nailed Gary Dobson’s later lie that he did not know his co-defendant David Norris after they were photographed together outside the house four days after the killing. But a photographer watched Jamie and Neil Acourt walk out of the house apparently with clothes covered by black plastic bags. The photographer did not have a phone and could not call anyone to have them followed. The clothes have never been found. It was 15 days before the police finally moved in to arrest the suspects.

The arrests

When officers finally moved in on May 7 – the day after a high-profile meeting between the Lawrence family and Nelson Mandela - they found a lot of weaponry but no direct link to the killing. A lethal hammer suspended from a strap was found under some clothing in David Norris’s bedroom; a sword – just one of the blades found at the Acourts’ house – was discovered under some cushions on the sofa.

They also found a jacket at the back of Gary Dobson’s wardrobe with “Supertramp” emblazoned on the back, that he said had been given to him by a family friend who worked in the television industry. It did not become clear for 15 years, but it was a vital find.

But the inquiry was going nowhere. Though two of the men, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight, were charged with the murder in July 1993 after they were picked out at identification parades by Duwayne Brooks, the cases against them were halted on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service. There was no leadership from the experienced officers leading the team and relations with Stephen Lawrence’s family had broken down.

One of the suspects, David Norris, did face a jury in 1993 but that was for another stabbing five weeks before the attack on Stephen Lawrence. He was acquitted, but only after allegations that the defendant’s father Clifford, a notorious drug dealer on the run from police, had tried to pay off the victim.

The Norris effect

By the spring of 1994, the CPS ruled that there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone. The Metropolitan Police appointed new leaders and its first task was to get Clifford Norris off the streets. He was a malign influence, stopping people from coming forward. He was suspected of training the five suspects on how to handle police questioning, officers believed.

Mr Norris had been on the run since 1988, wanted over running a multi-million pound drugs empire. He was finally tracked to oasthouse cottages in Sussex and arrested armed with a handgun when he stopped for breakfast in a local café. An Uzi submachine gun and ammunition were found back at the cottage.

With Norris out of the way, The senior investigating officer William Mellish focused on the suspects. He planted secret cameras in an electric plug in the skirting board of the flat rented by Gary Dobson and a friend, Charles Martin. Mr Martin – who also appeared in the surveillance footage - was later jailed for eight years for an attack on a man at a nightclub at a caravan site in Allhallows, Kent, two weeks before the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The court heard that it was only a “miracle of surgery” that kept the victim alive after he was cut from the top of his neck to the bottom of his back, exposing his backbone.

Another man who was caught on camera in the flat making racist jokes, Danny Caetano, was jailed for grievous bodily harm over the same attack and sent to a young offenders’ institution for four years. He had been on remand at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s killing and has been ruled out as a suspect.

The tapes captured Norris fantasising about killing every “black cunt, every Paki, every copper”. Dobson was heard telling how he threatened to slice up a colleague on a building site. Most chillingly, Neil Acourt is seen acting out the same overarm bowling stabbing movement used to inflict one of the wounds on Stephen Lawrence. He tells Luke Knight: “Put it on something – right and just dig straight in deep, watch.”

The racist rants came despite suspicions from the men that the flat was under surveillance and they always used a public phone box instead of a telephone inside of the flat.

They taunted the police but critically they never admit the murder. “If it was us, surely there’d be forensic fucking evidence and all that,” said Mr Knight.

Jamie Acourt did not feature in the videos as he was held over a nightclub stabbing. But when his friends visited him at the detention centre, police picked up chatter suggesting that Dobson was the weak link who “couldn’t hack the pressure”.

Police made were several approaches to try to persuade Mr Dobson to speak out against his friends - but they were rebuffed.

The private prosecution and the inquest

The family launched its own private prosecution against the five in 1994. Two years later the murder trial of three of the men Neil Acourt, Dobson and Mr Knight finally began – but they were acquitted because of problems with identification evidence given by Mr Brooks, who suffered from post-traumatic stress after the killing. The case against the other two, Jamie Acourt and David Norris, was dropped before it reached court.

The policeman assigned to escort Mr Brooks after the hearing, it later emerged, was spotted by undercover office years before having a series of unauthorised meetings with Clifford Norris in a pub and accepting packages. He was disciplined for that but kept his job – and later turned up in a peripheral role in the Lawrence case

The Lawrence family was frustrated again. Another opportunity to question the suspects arose soon at the inquest but the five avoided close questioning by claiming their right not to say anything that might incriminate themselves. At times the proceedings descended into farce. At one point, the family’s lawyer Michael Mansfield asked: “Are you called David Norris?”

Norris replied: “I am claiming privilege on that question.”

The inquest jury found that Stephen Lawrence was “unlawfully killed by five white youths” and prompted the Daily Mail to run a front page story the following day declaring the five to be murderers.

“The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”

The never have, blaming the cost of bringing the case.

The Macpherson inquiry

Amid a growing public outcry and effective campaigning by the family, the Home Secretary Jack Straw ordered a public inquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson.

When the inquiry started, the police gave a public and grovelling apology to the Lawrence family for the failings of the police inquiry. It was, said Neville Lawrence, years too late.

The Lawrence suspects were summoned but added little to the inquiry. When they left they were faced an angry crowd (Sir William refused their request to go out the back door) and the taunting developed into a brawl. The face of David Norris, twisted in anger as he threw a punch, was captured by cameras. The five were punched and kicked before they escaped.

Sir William made 70 recommendations, 39 of them related to the police, and they would have a major impact on race relations. Its most damning indictment was that the force was “institutionally racist” sparking major changes in the way that the police investigated murders, dealt with the families of victims and treated race crime.

Recommendation number 38 suggested that the 800-year-old double jeopardy rule should be scrapped, allowing someone to be tried a second time in certain cases if “fresh and viable” evidence was presented. Some lawyers and civil rights campaigners criticised the suggestion, but it would have a profound impact.

The suspects were confident enough to be interviewed by Martin Bashir for a television special to defend their reputation. Dobson told him that the five were considered “loveable rogues” on the estate where we lived. Then the mothers of the five went on radio to profess their innocence which had been tested sorely.

A new inquiry

Stung, the Metropolitan police put some of its best detectives on ‘Operation Athena Tower’ under the leadership of an experienced investigator, John Grieve. In 2001, the Commissioner John Stevens was confident enough to state that he knew who killed Stephen Lawrence. But the CPS ruled in 2004 ruled that the inquiry had failed to produce any credible witness who could identify the killers, any solid forensic evidence and only flawed confessions.

The CPS decision was widely assumed to be the last chance for anybody to be brought to justice. But another failure by the criminal justice system revived the case. The state-run Forensic Science Service was castigated after it failed to spot vital evidence in the 2000 killing of the black child Damilola Taylor that led to years of delay before his killers were jailed. It resulted in hundreds of cases being looked at again. Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Ian Blair agreed to a new inquiry, which started in 2006. It was armed with a powerful new tool: the 2005 Criminal Justice Act, which effectively scrapped the rule of double jeopardy.

The Cold Case Review

The new police team had no new exhibits and a database with 187 names or descriptions of potential suspects. Slowly they whittled it down and they ended with 11 names – all with links with the Acourt gang. The original suspects were among them.

Running alongside those inquiries, DCI Clive Driscoll and his superiors had encouraged the forensic team to investigate new angles thrown up by developments in science. The witnesses said that the attack had lasted 10 to 15 seconds. But what if, asked DCI Clive Driscoll, there was more contact between the killers and Stephen Lawrence? Could there be more evidence on the items that had not been found before?

It resulted in a long and exhaustive study of the 30 items of clothing seized from the suspects and recovered from Stephen Lawrence. It led to the discovery of the blood on the jacket collar of Gary Dobson. Hairs and fibres from Stephen Lawrence were found on the cloths of Dobson and Norris. A single fibre, believed to be from Stephen Lawrence’s polo shirt was found on a green shirt belonging to Neil Acourt.

Armed with the new evidence, the police team planned to arrest the two men again. Dobson was easy to find – he was in prison. Norris, who it is believed was under police surveillance, was staying in a hostel above a Greenwich pub.

He was arrested in an operation that Mr Driscoll, a diehard Fulham football fan, named after the manager of the time, Roy Hodgson. The operation in September 7, 2010 went smoothly and “the neighbours didn’t even know we were there,” Mr Driscoll said of operation ‘Sir Woy’.

The two men were questioned about the new forensic evidence after they were arrested. They said nothing. The following year the Court of Appeal agreed that the evidence was new, substantial and compelling, under the terms of the 2005 law, and quashed the acquittal of Dobson. After 18 years, the trial was on.

* Stephen Lawrence: How the case breakthrough came
* A shrunken family: The first journalist to interview the Lawrences recalls the scene
* The science that helped convict Gary Dobson


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