Lift the veil on racist Britain

It's not Stephen Lawrence's killers who are on trial but the entire criminal justice system.
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The Independent Online
IT IS nearly five years since Stephen Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks found themselves standing on a south London roadside at 10.40pm on a Thursday evening waiting for a bus. A gang of white youths armed with knives charged across that road at them, one shouting the word "nigger". Later Stephen, aged just 18 and with high hopes of A-level success and a university place, bled to death on the pavement from two dreadful stab wounds.

Tomorrow morning, in smart new offices above a shopping centre in south London, a public inquiry into the case opens before a former High Court judge, and the question is being asked again: will Stephen's killers ever pay for their crimes? It is a perfectly natural question - there have, after all, been three police investigations, a rare private prosecution for murder, a long and painstaking inquest, and a nine-month Police Complaints Authority inquiry, and still no one has been jailed. But it is the wrong question, for the killers, whoever they are, are almost certainly beyond justice and the inquiry has other business to do.

Five white youths, then aged 16 and 17, were charged with the crime: Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight. This was a gang: all but one lived near the scene of the killing; most were known racists, and most had some track record of violence, usually involving knives. In the course of subsequent police surveillance, four of them were recorded on video airing extremely violent racist fantasies.

Not one of these thoroughly sinister young men has ever spoken publicly about what happened that night, and they provoked public outrage at the inquest when they refused to answer any questions, repeating like a mantra: "I claim privilege." Immediately afterwards the Daily Mail branded them "Murderers" on its front page and defied them to prove it wrong. They kept mum.

Now at last they will be forced to speak at the inquiry, or face up to six months in jail, and in a sense it is little wonder that the prospect excites interest. At a press conference last week Sir William Macpherson, the inquiry chairman, was asked about little else, and the headlines next day were all about the five boys.

But as Sir William himself pointed out, there is virtually no prospect of prosecutions, no matter what they say. Three - Neil Acourt, Dobson and Knight - are fireproof, since they were acquitted of the crime in 1996 when the chief prosecution witness was ruled unreliable. They cannot be tried again for the same offence. The other two were discharged at the committal stage in 1995, for want of evidence, so they could be charged again. But even if new facts were uncovered against them, they could argue, with some justification, that the Daily Mail had rendered a fair trial impossible.

So forget the five. Whatever they say now cannot harm them, and may not even advance the cause of truth. In any case, they are now almost marginal to the issue, for this inquiry is not about who killed Stephen, but about why the killers have got away with it. Above all, this inquiry is about race and the criminal justice system.

A year ago Doreen Lawrence told the inquest: "My son was stereotyped by police; he was black, then he must be a criminal ... my son's crime was that he was walking down the road looking for a bus that would take him home. Our crime is living in a country where the justice system supports racist murders against innocent people."

Those words more than any others lay behind the decision of Jack Straw to order the inquiry, for they are much more than the anguished railings of a bereaved mother. Many black people agree with her - they proved it by raising large sums to fund the Lawrence campaign - and that is probably because their own experience tells them something similar.

It is a familiar if unwelcome fact that at the simplest level, the way in which they experience public order, black people in Britain are profoundly disadvantaged. They aremore likely than white people to be stopped by police, more likely to be charged, more likely to be denied bail, more likely to be jailed if convicted, and less likely to be granted parole. At the same time, black and Asian people endure high levels of lawlessness directed against themselves: something like 130,000 racially motivated incidents a year, of which 32,000 - almost 100 a day - are assaults. Whatever way you look at it, Britain has a serious racism problem.

Can the Lawrence inquiry do something about this? Yes. With luck, it might produce the most important public document about race and the law in nearly 20 years, something which might, for example, raise public awareness of these issues in the same way that rape, domestic violence and drink- driving crimes have been dramatically pushed up the agenda in the past. It might even help to make Britain fairer.

This might seem a heavy burden to place on the inquiry chairman, but the truth is that Sir William's terms of reference allow him scope to tackle all sorts of "matters arising" from the Lawrence case (and should he need encouragement he will receive it from the Lawrences and the Commission for Racial Equality).

The first step, of course, is to determine whether racism did play a part in the failure to catch Stephen Lawrence's killers, as his parents assert, and that may be problematic. After all, nobody in the criminal justice system is likely to have expressed racism in writing, and they are also unlikely to confess to it after the event, so there will be no smoking guns.

When the Police Complaints Authority investigated the Lawrence case last year, it found evidence of "significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities" in the original investigation (and we learned last week that it wants one senior officer to be disciplined). But on the question of racism it said that it had "not produced any evidence to support the allegations of racist conduct". Such a retreat will not be an option for Sir William, who will operate in public under close scrutiny from a black community familiar with the effects of silent, latent, covert racism.

There are signs in the advance papers for the inquiry that he will adopt a rather different approach to the PCA's. He is planning, for example, to examine whether the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were affected "either consciously or subconsciously" by the race of the victim. He will also assess "any inferences of racism" in the case.

Inference and the subconscious may be slippery customers, but they will be vital if the Lawrence family's complaint about race and the justice system is to be dealt with properly. And that, not the useless and doomed search for evidence against the killers, is what this inquiry is for.