Leading article: Justice at last - but this chapter in our history is not closed

The Stephen Lawrence case leaves a salutary legacy not just for the police but for society as a whole

Related Topics

Almost two decades passed between the killing of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 and the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris on 3 January 2012. That those years were also marked by profound changes in British society, in police practice and in judicial procedure is a measure of the significance that this one case came to acquire. The Stephen Lawrence of 1993 was a promising 18-year-old A-level pupil and a much-loved son, who was set upon at a bus stop in south-east London. The Stephen Lawrence of 2012 remains all that, but also an emblem for much of what was – and to an extent still is – wrong with Britain.

It would be tempting to conclude that now justice has been done, the Lawrence family can remember their son in peace and the country can put the whole sickening business behind it. But justice is not complete, and even if it were, the one does not – and should not – presuppose the other.

Yes, in many respects, justice has been done. Two men, both teenagers at the time, have been convicted of Stephen Lawrence's racist murder on the basis of forensic evidence obtained through techniques developed only recently. That the jury was unanimous and returned its verdict so relatively quickly offers welcome certainty after so many years of false starts and hesitation.

As Neville Lawrence noted yesterday, however, the conviction of two men does not mean that all his son's killers have been brought to justice. Five were arrested initially, with two charged before the case was dropped. Three were tried, and acquitted, after a private prosecution brought by the family in 1996. The police believe as many as 11 people could have taken part. The truth is that one or more of the killers have still eluded the law. Nor, given the highly technical nature of the crucial evidence, can an appeal be excluded. Even now, this case may not be over.

And, quite beyond the strictly judicial elements, there are good reasons why it should not be consigned so readily to history. The shooting of an Indian student on Boxing Day, in a crime Manchester police are treating as perhaps racially motivated, is only the latest sign that racial difference is, for a very few sick souls, a reason to end a life.

While a crime of the most heinous variety, however, and one still not fully punished, the killing of Stephen Lawrence has left a salutary, even a positive legacy on aspects of British life. As Brian Cathcart argues on the opposite page, the murder brought home to many white Britons for the first time, the reality of racial hatred. The inquiry by Sir William Macpherson into the failure of the Metropolitan Police investigation, which reported in 1999, exposed the persistence of racism in the police – institutionalised racism, as he termed it – almost a generation after Lord Scarman had identified racial discrimination by police as a contributory cause of the Brixton riots.

Among the results were changes to police practice that required racial aspects of any case to be recorded, as well as the creation of new advisory and liaison groups. Another was an end to the 800-year-old principle of double jeopardy, which meant that someone who had been acquitted could not stand trial for the same crime again. Without that, Dobson would not have been tried, still less convicted, this time.

A further consequence might be the far greater recognition that exists today of the real menace represented not just by racist violence, but by racist attitudes in general. If the 18 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence have changed anything, it is the broad acceptance at all levels of society that racism can never be condoned.

Which is also where it becomes clear how much remains to be done in the matter of race and prejudice in Britain. There are still parts of many cities, but particularly London, which remain essentially segregated by race, and where racist attitudes are rife. Police culture may have changed, but this has not reached every officer. Nor, as the aftermath of the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham last August illustrated, are the police always as socially sensitive as they should be.

And while changed attitudes and improved technology made the trial of Dobson and Norris possible, it is probably fair to say that neither the trial, nor yesterday's conviction, would have been achieved without the persistence and determination of Doreen Lawrence. This is to her enormous credit. But justice for a murdered teenager, whatever his ethnicity, should be fundamental to the system. It should not have to depend on the devotion of a mother.

* 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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine