Paul Vallely: A 10-year-old's murder and a very public sense of failure

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The footage from the closed circuit television camera was shown over and over again. It showed a happy smiling schoolboy hopping and skipping, with the unsupressable exuberance of childhood, across the flagstones of a shopping precinct. It was Peckham but it could have been anywhere in Britain. It could have been any 10-year-old boy on his way home from school.

But what gave the pictures their devastatingly plangent quality was that, as the television news broadcasts played them time and again, we all knew what was to happen next, and were powerless to stop it. Within 15 minutes the joyful child would be lying, bleeding to death, in a dirty, derelict stairway. It was an incident ­ the fatal stabbing of a 10-year-old with a broken bottle ­ which shocked a nation which thought it had grown inured to inner-city brutality. For the past six years, the killing of Damilola Taylor has stood as a terrible milestone of society's impotence in the face of the tide of contemporary violence. And the more we learnt, the more grim it felt.

How the last passer-by to see the boy before the attack saw him lean forward "with this great big, beaming smile". How Damilola had been on his way home from an after-school computer club about which he had once written in a school essay: "I want to be the very best, like no one ever has been... I know it is my destiny." How he had only arrived in Britain a few months earlier when his family moved from Nigeria to seek better treatment for his older sister who suffered from epilepsy.

It was a story of hope and optimism which had ended in that sordid stairway on an estate terrorised by gangs of youths who made life miserable for the people who lived there. They were gangs who carried knives, whose members had convictions for theft, assault and drugs ­ who were often too young to take to court and against whom people were too frightened to give evidence. And against whom the police too seemed impotent.

Within days, Danny and Ricky Preddie, the two brothers who were finally convicted of Damilola's killing yesterday, were arrested. They were then aged 12 and 13. But they were released without charge. The prime suspects were again arrested just a fortnight later, but again no charges were brought.

The boy's funeral took place a month later ­ attended by football players, government officials and hundreds of members of the public ­ with still no sign of progress. Nor was there any later in the year when 500 people marched through Peckham in a tribute to the dead boy.

In a desperate attempt at resolution on the first anniversary of Damilola's death, the Prime Minister opened a youth centre in Peckham, named in tribute to the boy. But the sense that Damilola's killers had some kind of inner-city impunity persisted.

It was two years before the first of what were to be three trials through which Damilola's parents, Gloria and Richard Taylor, sat with quiet dignity in the face of harrowing evidence about their son's injuries. It was a fiasco. The four youths charged with Damilola's murder were acquitted after the judge ruled that the prosecution's key witness, a 12-year-old girl known as Bromley, was a liar. There was a sense of police incompetence in the air.

Many suspected ­ in the wake of the lack of prosecutions over the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson report's accusations of institutional racism ­ that, when the victim was black, there was a lack of urgency in the Metropolitan Police. It was not allayed when Sir John Stevens, in his retirement speech as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, announced his "deep regret" at not catching the boy's killers.

The pain and frustration of Damilola's parents only heightened the public sense of failure. Mr and Mrs Taylor blamed themselves for their son's death, constantly questioning their decision to bring Damilola to Britain. Mr Taylor, who had been a civil servant in Nigeria at the time of his son's death, lacerated himself saying: "I ask myself over and over again why I wasn't here to protect him... The questions we ask ourselves about who might be to blame go on and on."

But they also blamed Britain for being a country where people did not seem to know how to raise children and said they were "ashamed" of British justice. Many Britons found it hard not to agree.

Nor was confidence in the system improved when police announced they were to retest all the forensic evidence, including the clothing and footwear of all those who had been arrested. And then it transpired that the government-owned Forensic Science Service had, sensationally, missed traces of Damilola's blood on the trainer of one suspect and the shirt of another.

It was this evidence which, though it failed to convict the Preddie brothers of murder in the second trial at the Old Bailey last year, yesterday, in the third trial, led them to be convicted of manslaughter.

So what, finally, is the legacy of the whole sorry story? There has been some progress on the estate where Damilola died. The block of flats and the stairwell where he died have been pulled down. The demolition had been planned even before the child's death ­ very few people lived there ­ but, after the killing, politicians made sure that what they had earlier promised actually happened.

They spent £300m rebuilding the area. Where the grim concrete towers once stood, there are now smart terraced homes, modern flats and wide streets. There are show homes and marketing suites, and work is continuing. The sports centre re-named after Damilola has been refurbished and several initiatives have been launched to tackle youth crime, focusing on much earlier intervention where risk factors (such as not going to school or difficult behaviour) become apparent. There has been a 16 per cent fall in youth crime in the borough and an incentive programme has been introduced in Southwark schools to reward good behaviour. There has also been a gradual reduction in local unemployment.

But gang culture is still alive. Local people describe the place today as "a very dangerous neighbourhood". The area's youth offending team officer says work still needs to be done.

The record of the Preddie brothers does not offer much comfort; both have a history of violence. Danny mugged one victim with a baseball bat and, during another robbery, threatened to cut a train passenger in the face while Ricky's previous offences including robbery and possession of a knife.

Yesterday's verdict may have brought some sense of closure for Richard and Gloria Taylor in their six-year battle to get justice for their son. But for the rest of us, the sad saga of Damilola Taylor, and society's inadequate protracted response to it, offers small comfort.

The six-year road to justice

27 NOVEMBER 2000

Ten-year-old schoolboy Damilola Taylor is found bleeding heavily on a stairwell in the North Peckham estate, south-east London. Passers-by try to save him, but he is pronounced dead at King's College Hospital shortly afterwards.

DECEMBER 2000

Several youths arrested in connection with the death, including the two brothers who will later stand trial for his murder. All are released without charge.

19 JANUARY 2001

Hundreds of members of the public join Damilola's parents at his funeral.

JUNE 2001

Four youths, not including the two brothers who will stand trial in 2006, are arrested and charged with murder and assault with intent to rob. All deny the charges.

JANUARY-APRIL 2002

The four youths stand trial at the Old Bailey, but the judge rules that the star witness, a 14-year-old girl identified as Bromley, is lying and the defendants walk free.

JANUARY 2005

Three youths charged with Damilola's murder. They are Hassan Jihad, 19, and two brothers who cannot be named because of their ages. All plead not guilty.

JANUARY 2006

Victor Temple, for the prosecution, tells jury the initial inquiry missed vital evidence including spots of Damilola's blood on one youth's clothes and shoes.

APRIL 2006

Hassan Jihad is cleared of all charges relating to the death and the two brothers are cleared of murder.

23 JUNE 2006

New trial for manslaughter begins of the two brothers, who are now over 18 and can be identified as Danny and Ricky Preddie.

9 AUGUST 2006

Danny and Rickie Preddie found guilty of manslaughter by an Old Bailey jury.

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