The decision to bring the case against the four teenagers known as A, B, C and D to court for the murder of Damilola Taylor was a mistake. This is not said simply with the benefit of hindsight. The purpose of the court proceedings is, of course, to test the evidence and in the process some of it will be found wanting. A case which seems strong before it comes to court may be found to be full of holes when it gets there.
This, however, was never such a case. The case against one of the defendants, 17-year-old boy C, always rested on a single witness to link him to the crime. The transcripts of interviews with that witness, a 14-year-old girl, were available to the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, when he decided to go ahead with the case. They showed that the interviewing officer had wittingly or unwittingly encouraged her to link variations in her evidence with a £50,000 reward offered by a newspaper. He could not have foreseen, perhaps, how spectacularly her credibility would be undermined in court, but the case was already hanging by a thread. Once the case was under way, C was acquitted on the judge's instructions in February.
Nor was the case against 15-year-old boy D much stronger. He was said by fellow inmates of Feltham young offenders' institution to have boasted of attacking Damilola, but the judge ruled that the witnesses were unreliable – another foreseeable development. Boy D was released last month.
Against the 16-year-old brothers A and B, there were additional accounts of boasting at Feltham from the staff. While they may have been more reliable witnesses than the inmates, the case still rested fatally on alleged and ambiguous self-incrimination – the kind of thing which might have supported other evidence but which should never sustain a conviction on its own. The jury unanimously found them not guilty yesterday.
In Mr Calvert-Smith's defence it might be said that he did not know that the evidence from one of the more credible of the staff at Feltham would be disallowed in court. He did not know, either, that mobile phone records would put brothers A and B – unless they had lent their phones to others – a mile and a half away from the scene at the time Damilola was apparently attacked.
It has also been said, already, and many times, that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which Mr Calvert-Smith heads, were under intolerable pressure from the public and the media to find Damilola's killer or killers and bring them to justice. That is true and inevitable.
The pressure may have led to the lapse in police interviewing standards, and resulted in the police presenting an inadequate case to the CPS. None of this is desirable, but it is the responsibility of the CPS, and ultimately of Mr Calvert-Smith himself, to reach an independent decision on whether or not to prosecute. In this case, Mr Calvert-Smith would have served the public interest – and not least the interests of Damilola's parents – by sending the case back to the police and telling them it needed further work. Ultimately, it is Mr Calvert-Smith's job to resist public pressure for quick results.
There are many lessons in the Damilola case for politicians, for the agencies responsible for criminal justice, social care, education, and indeed for anyone with a conscience. The defendants in this case are damaged, dangerous adolescents who were failed by all the systems set up to help them and protect others. But, for the collapse of this particular case, it is Mr Calvert-Smith, rather than Sir John Stevens, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who has the most explaining to do.Reuse content