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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
King Abdullah made Saudi Arabia prosperous but had absolute disregard for what liberal Westerners would view as basic human rights  

The media cannot ignore tricky questions when someone dies - but it must stick to the facts

Will Gore
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us