The three men accused of murdering the black teenager Stephen Lawrence could stand trial for a second time under sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system unveiled by the Government yesterday.
Ministers intend to abolish the ancient rule of double jeopardy, which prevents defendants being tried twice for the same crime even if they later confess or new evidence is discovered. The change in the law proposed in the Queen's Speech would apply only in cases of murder, and, if the Government follows the recommendations of the Law Commission, would have retrospective effect.
The commission also recommended the need for compelling new evidence and the permission of a judge before the prosecution could proceed.
Stephen Lawrence, 18, was stabbed to death by white youths while waiting for a bus in Eltham, south-east London in April 1993. Police said his death was racially motivated. In 1996, three men went on trial at the Old Bailey, but the case collapsed after it was ruled that identification evidence from Duwayne Brooks, a friend of Stephen, was inadmissible. All three were acquitted.
The proposed reform, outlined in the Criminal Justice Bill, is thought likely to affect a handful of other murder inquiries in which the police would like to retry the same defendant. But lawyers and civil rights groups said the proposal would unfairly prejudice the defendant and encourage sloppy prosecution practice because the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would know they had "a second bite at the cherry".
Suresh Grover, chairman of the National Civil Rights Movement formerly the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign said: "The Lawrence inquiry had absolutely nothing to do with how the evidence was presented in court, it was to do with how the initial stages of the police inquiry were handled."
John Wadham, the director of Liberty, said dropping the principle raised serious issues for the criminal justice system. He said: "The protection from double jeopardy is a fundamental part of our criminal justice system. We increase the chances of innocent people being convicted if we remove it."
Helen Edwards, the chief executive of the crime reduction charity Nacro, said: "Where advances in forensic science throw up significant new evidence against individuals who have been acquitted of the most serious offences, there is a case for a relaxation of the double jeopardy rule."
There are further proposals in the Queen's Speech to end a 17th-century rule that prevents courts using parliamentary evidence to prosecute MPs for corruption and bribery. An MP who admits in Parliament to accepting bribes is immune from prosecution.
The Government also announced action on persistent offenders. A "custody plus" programme would mean anyone given a jail sentence of 12 months or less might serve half of it in prison and serve the rest under close supervision in the community.
In a much trailed announcement, the Criminal Justice Bill includes a requirement that sex offenders convicted overseas must register with the police when they visit Britain.Reuse content