Profile: Neville and Doreen Lawrenc - All they want is justice

Some sought to turn Stephen Lawrence's murder into a cause. Not his parents.
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The Independent Online
NEVILLE Lawrence's broad shoulders sagged and his eyes filled with tears. Sitting beside him, his wife, Doreen, gazed straight ahead, her features frozen. A few minutes later, Neville got up, walked out of the room and collapsed. It was, perhaps, one of the most harrowing moments of the long-running public inquiry into the murder of their son Stephen. The couple had been listening to the account of his friend, Duwayne Brooks, who witnessed the vicious attack that left Stephen bleeding to death on the pavement.

By now the horrific sequence of events must be burnt into their consciousness. Stephen surrounded by the gang of white youths and forced to the ground. The long-bladed knife plunged twice into his chest. Stephen struggling to his feet, running 130 yards before crumpling, never to get up again. Duwayne trying to flag down passing traffic.

You wonder how the Lawrences can stand to hear it, over and over again. In the past five years they have been to hell and back, the loss of a cherished son compounded by the failure of police to lock up his killers. Yet despite every setback, they pursue their fight. They want justice for Stephen, no more, no less.

These are two ordinary people who summoned up remarkable reserves of strength after their lives were shattered in the most abrupt and brutal fashion. This working-class black couple from a run-down London suburb took on the police and the legal system, insisting, with courage and quiet persistence, that their voices be heard. When the police dragged their feet, they demanded to know why. When the Crown Prosecution Service gave up on the case, they launched a rare private prosecution. When that failed, they sought the public inquiry.

Over the years, they have met the Home Secretary, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Nelson Mandela. In the process, they have become reluctant public figures themselves - the grieving parents who refused to give up.

The arrival of the first immigrants from the West Indies aboard the Empire Windrush 50 years ago is now being celebrated in books and documentaries. Neville and Doreen were among a later wave that left Jamaica for Britain, a country that, as far as Neville was concerned, stood for "principles and equal rights".

Neville came over in 1960 at the age of 18, settled in London and trained in crafts: upholstery, tool-making, carpentry, tailoring and plastering. It was while working as a tailor that he met Doreen's mother, a machinist. Doreen, who had emigrated a couple of years after him, was working as a bank clerk.

The Lawrences married in 1970 in Lewisham Register Office, and moved into a flat in Plumstead. Stephen was born four years later, followed by two other children: Stuart, now 21, and Georgina, 16. Doreen took a university course and became a special needs teacher. Family life was based on religious faith and a belief in the value of a good education.

They were respectable, hard-working people, popular in their local church community. "A very friendly couple, very open and relaxed," recalls the Rev David Cruise, former vicar of their local Methodist church. "Doreen was lively, always laughing a lot. Neville was the quieter, thoughtful one."

Colour was not an issue for the Lawrences. They had plenty of white friends, and had never experienced any racism. They were only dimly aware of a series of racially motivated murders in their area. "Until it happens to you, it doesn't really sink in," Doreen said recently.

The children were all bright, and the couple had high hopes for them. Stephen, who was 18 when he died, was preparing for three A-levels, and wanted to study architecture. During a work experience placement, he had so impressed a local black architect, Arthur Timothy, that he had already received a job offer.

On the night of 22 April 1993 the family's world was turned upside-down. On a well-lit main street in Eltham, as he waited for a bus home to Woolwich, Stephen was set upon by a gang of teenage thugs. By the time that Neville and Doreen reached the local hospital he was already dead, his lung punctured. He was killed for one reason only: the colour of his skin.

In this bleakest of hours, his parents looked to the police force of their adopted country to find Stephen's murderers and bring them to book. They had been brought up to trust and respect authority. In the days that followed the scales were lifted from their eyes. The police were offhand, indifferent, suspicious. They insinuated that Stephen had been part of a gang, perhaps into drugs. They passed on little information about the progress of the murder investigation. When they finally made arrests a fortnight later, the Lawrences found out about it from the television news.

As they grew increasingly dissatisfied with the police, their son's death turned into a cause celebre in the black community. The Anti-Racist Alliance set up camp in their home; the Black Panthers came to call. Competing groups jumped on the bandwagon, arranging marches and vigils without bothering to tell the family. Finally, the Lawrences called a halt. From then on, they decreed, all public events associated with Stephen's death would be organised by them. The Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign was set up by a core of relatives and friends, many of whom provide daily support for the couple at the public inquiry.

The Lawrences have dealt with their grief in different ways, and the dynamics in their relationship have changed. In the early days Doreen, the more articulate and forthright of the two, was the driving force behind the fight for justice. She became politicised more quickly and gave all the media interviews. Neville, gentle, diffident, remained in her shadow.

Lately, Neville, now 56, has grown in stature and confidence. He does most of the talking now. He has also become something of an unofficial anti-racism activist, addressing conferences and forging links with other campaigns. Richard Adams, father of Rolan, a young black man killed in a racist attack in 1991, has become a close friend. At the Trinity Methodist Church in Plumstead, where the Lawrences worship, there is a stained-glass memorial window depicting scenes from Stephen's life. It was created by an East End artist working with Neville, who had been learning the craft of leaded windows when his son was killed. Doreen, 45, has withdrawn a little. She shows her emotions less than Neville, but seems increasingly brittle.

Both of them have been through periods of utter desolation. During the committal proceedings for the private prosecution in 1995, Neville tried to throw himself out of a window at Belmarsh Magistrates Court after hearing the first detailed account of how Stephen was attacked. When the prosecution collapsed in 1996, he went back to Jamaica for six months, on the verge of a breakdown. For Doreen, too, this was the worst time.

Neville, who is unemployed, attends the public inquiry every day. Doreen, a student welfare officer at a university, works and looks after the family. She has pursued her studies and acquired a humanities degree. The couple have taken care to shield their children from the glare of publicity, although Stuart, who is studying graphic design, created a T-shirt and poster for the campaign.

The past five years have taken a personal toll. "Losing a child puts an enormous strain on a relationship, and the Lawrences are no exception," says Suresh Grover, a campaign activist. "Neither Neville nor Doreen has come to terms with their loss, and they have both on occasions blamed each other. They have been through agonising times, and they have aged as a result of it. You can see it in their faces and bodies. Neville's hair seems to go whiter every day."

A week tomorrow at the inquiry, the couple will confront the five men they believe to be their son's killers, and see them forced to answer questions. They do not relish the prospect; but neither do they shrink from it.

There is little chance that they'll see any of them behind bars. Three have been acquitted, and cannot be tried again. The other two are unlikely ever to face a jury. The Daily Mail, which championed the couple's cause after Neville carried out plastering work at its editor's home, named the five as murderers on its front page a year ago. The move probably helped the family to secure the public inquiry. But it also means the suspects can argue that they would never receive a fair trial.

Neville and Doreen are different from five years ago. They have lost their innocence, their idealism, their faith in authority. They believe that black life is cheap in this country. So disillusioned are they with Britain that they buried Stephen in Jamaica. The small plaque at the site of his murder is repeatedly vandalised.

Yet they do not appear driven by a thirst for revenge. No matter what is thrown at them, they remain utterly dignified. "They are exceptional people," says Mr Grover. "They are very shy and humble, totally without prejudice."

The Rev Cruise agrees. "They have a fundamental humanity, and that is what drives them," he says. "They are fighting for everyone, black or white. They are determined not to give up, not only for Stephen's sake, but for their own sake and for the sake of human dignity."