'You can't touch us - we're the untouchables'

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The Independent Online

The judge described them at their murder trial as the kind of teenagers who could be considered "louts" or "yobs".

Mr Justice Hooper told the jury that the two brothers accused of stabbing to death Damilola Taylor had only relatively minor convictions and that their behaviour was similar to many other young troublemakers.

But what the four women and seven men who cleared the brothers of murder could not be told was that the teenagers had notorious reputations and had been accused of a long list of serious crimes including a sexual assault on two girls aged 10 and 12. It was also never revealed in court, for legal reasons, that the two other young defendants, a 17-year-old known as Boy C and a 15-year-old known as Boy D, who had been acquitted of murder earlier in the trial, had been accused of brutally beating a student, and that the younger youth was also accused of sexually assaulting the two girls.

The brothers and the 15-year-old were among five members of a gang who were accused of attacking the girls. All five appeared at the Old Bailey in May 2000, six months before Damilola was murdered, but because of a series of legal blunders and disagreements the case collapsed and the youths were freed.

The brothers, then both aged 14, and Boy D, then aged 13, along with a 12 and a 13-year-old were accused of attacking the two girls on the Gloucester Grove Estate in Peckham on 2 November 1999.

They were alleged to have taken the girls to a park underneath a tower block, where they held them down and sexual assaulted them. The girls were verbally abused and deeply traumatised. The boys were said to have run off shouting: "You can't touch us, we're the untouchables."

One of the victims said she had been left suicidal, and had taken an overdose. The mother of the older child said her daughter had become withdrawn and frightened since the incident.

The boys were charged with indecent assault, common assault and criminal damage, which they all denied. The Crown Prosecution Service considered the offences too serious for the Youth Court, which could only give a maximum sentence of a supervision orders with up to six months in local authority secure unit. On 16 February 2000 Camberwell Magistrates agreed with the CPS and sent the case to the Crown Court.

It was heard at the Old Bailey on 31 May 2000. But the then Common Sergeant of London, Judge Neil Denison, said the case should have been heard at the youth court. He ruled that he had no power to send the it back and "stayed" the charges – in effect throwing them out and acquitting the defendants.

The CPS has stood by its decision and still believes the case should have gone ahead at the Crown Court.

The four defendants in the Damilola trial were very close. All had dropped out of school or been expelled, and were already well known to the police, having been involved in truancy and trouble for years. They had chaotic lives, usually looked after by their mothers and without any father figure on the scene. One of the brothers, known as Boy B, fathered a child at 15. The pregnant girl, aged 13, was taken by her mother to live in Ireland.

The 16-year-old brothers are of Mediterranean origin and are the youngest of five children, with two sisters and a brother. Their father left them when they were two but is still in contact. Their mother was the only parent of the four original defendants to sit in court most days.

The brothers had a reputation for violence and were feared by their peers in Peckham. Detective Superintendent Trevor Shepherd, the officer heading the murder inquiry, said: "These two have a dynamic when they are together. They become almost stronger than the two halves. They act as one."

Within two months of Damilola's death, the brothers were charged with making threats to "stab and kill" a witness who had supplied a statement against them, accusing them of a burgling a house on the North Peckham Estate on 16 November 2000. That case, too, was later thrown out.

The brother known as boy A already had a long criminal record. He was given a conditional discharge for taking a moped and riding it with no insurance on 5 January 2000. About two months later, he received an 18-hour attendance centre order for taking another moped. On 17 June 2000, he was convicted of going equipped to steal. In August of the same year, he received a 12-month supervision order and fined £30 for theft and possession of cannabis. He was sentenced to a four-month detention order for taking a moped in March 2001. Two months later he was fined £50 for assaulting a policeman.

His brother, known as boy B, went before the youth courts six times between February and December 2000. He was fined £20 for stealing a vehicle and given a 12-month conditional discharge for a similar offence. A three-month parenting order was imposed when he was convicted of going equipped for theft, and a similar order, together with a 12-month supervision order, for another theft. He received another conditional discharge for failing to surrender to custody and was sentenced to 18 hours at an attendance centre for criminal damage.

Just four weeks after Damilola died, the other two suspects, Boy C and Boy D, were accused of a brutal beating that left a foreign student needing 30 stitches. It was alleged that they, with three others, attacked a teenager as he walked alone in Bermondsey, south-east London, pelting him with bottles and planks of wood before beating him. Both were acquitted of unlawful wounding and affray when the judge at Inner London Crown Court threw out the case in April last year.

The oldest of the four, Boy C, spent some time in care after his mother abandoned him twice. He moved to Britain with his mother and two sisters a few years ago from Africa, where his father remained. He lived for much of the time of the brothers' bedroom floor. It is understood he had not been to school for two years before the attack on Damilola.

The 15-year-old, Boy D, who was 13 at the time of Damilola's killing. He lives with his mother, a single parent, and a number of brothers and sisters. He was expelled from school two years ago for throwing a chair. In June 2000 he was convicted of common assault. Four months later he was back in court for going equipped for a break-in but the case was discharged after no evidence was offered. He was sentenced to a two-year supervision order for burglary in May 2000, and convicted of a common assault on another youngster on 11 October 2000.

Det Supt Shepherd, describing the youths, said: "The picture we came across was of young boys brought up by their mothers and other relatives. In all the arrests we did not find a father on the scene. Many of them were setting their own agenda, when they went out and came back, and their own moral boundaries, what was and was not acceptable."

Against this background of neglect and low-level crime the youths found mutual support among a gang in Peckham, a loose collection of youths mostly aged between 12 and 16, but with some as young as nine or 10. The gang had been causing anxiety among police and residents for some time before Damilola was murdered.

A local child care worker commented: "Being a member of the gang doesn't automatically involve criminality. For some kids, it's a kind of protection because other gang members will look after them. You can't blame some for joining; after all, when you see what happened to Damilola, you couldn't say we gave them much protection, could you?"

For some the gangs become a surrogate family. But, according to one local politician who wished to remain anonymous, it would be wrong to think all the boys come from bad homes.

He said: "The kids are known to the locals but most are scared to say anything against them for fear of reprisals. But don't think they are all tough kids from broken or deprived homes; they aren't. I have been into some of their homes and you would be surprised. They are good, clean homes and although the boys may be from single parent families, some of those parents are smart, clean and well-educated. When you see these kids as individuals at home, they are meek and mild. But when they get together, they are a force to be reckoned with."