The Diary: Why the Stone conviction makes me uneasy

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The Independent Online
It has been a depressing week, but an instructive one. It began with the death of an old friend - Big Nox from Trinidad, whom I'd known for 50 years - and ended with the conviction of Michael Stone for the murder of Lin and Megan Russell. A lot of people were cheered by the conviction. I wasn't one of them.

Like everybody else in England, of course, I was haunted by the murder, and the barbaric attack on little Josie terrorised my soul. The pressure for arrest and conviction was immense. The women of the Medway towns of Kent needed to be protected from a beast at large.

And yet ... After a lengthy and much-publicised trial I am not at all sure that the Medway women are any safer this week than they were last. The words of Michael Stone on hearing the jury's verdict may return to haunt us. "I didn't do it," he said. "I never done it."

That's what they all say; but in Stone's case the evidence was an unusually thin. It was certainly not conclusive. There was not a mite of forensic evidence, only a series of second-hand tales, badly told.

In fact, it was a hunch that led the police to Stone. A psychiatrist pulled him out of a file after watching a reconstruction of the murder on Crimewatch. He believed Stone fitted the description of the murderer given by Josie. He told the police that Stone had the mental profile of a killer. And from there, it seems, the detectives worked backwards. Stone may indeed have been the killer, but on the evidence his conviction seems to me to be dangerous.

The police were under great pressure to bring the beast to justice, as I say. We do not need much imagination to picture a beleaguered police force snatching at the opportunity provided by Stone's psychiatrist. But it does seem that Stone was, as he put it, "trapped".

There is a line of thought which holds that all this matters very little if Stone was the actual murderer. I strongly disagree. It is tantamount to saying that we do not need to observe the judicial process, that we do not need courts. On this reading of justice, once someone is "known" to have committed a crime, then all we have to do is sentence him. But better that one guilty man goes free ... as the saying has it.

More death, I'm afraid. Jamie Robe, young, white and working-class, was murdered more than a year ago, in Rotherhithe. The fact that he vomited after a drinking session and was lippy with a couple of thugs cost him his life. After brief verbal exchanges, his assailants collected members of their tribe and attacked Jamie with baseball bats and pool cues, smashed his head in, broke his limbs.

And his father, now disabled, says that he is none the wiser 14 months on. One young man was arrested and released, case papers were sent to the DPP who are reluctant to charge members of the mob. And, as in the case of Stephen Lawrence, the police know the names of the killers. Unlike the Lawrences, though, Mr Robe comes from a community denuded of poles of resistance, of rhythms of revolt. The Lawrences had much to draw upon: a practice of organisational resistance to racism. They could, and did, mobilise Mandela, the best British lawyers, the Trades Union Congress, and the rest of them. And Jamie's dad sits alone, riddled with grief, in a tiny flat in South London. Will someone lend a hand?

Perhaps the coming week will be more cheerful. In a few days I am off to Cape Town on a writing assignment. My last visit to the Republic of South Africa - Durban as a matter of fact - was a serious affair. The Devil's Advocate, the Channel 4 programme which I once presented, had drawn Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi into the hot seat.

He arrived at the studio with a massive retinue, obviously pleased to be broadcasting to his friends in Britain: John Aspinall, Margaret Thatcher and all those hard-nosed right-wingers. Nervousness soon set in. Trevor Phillips, the programme's producer, called me aside to whisper that some people in the audience were bearing arms. I conveyed the information to the Chief who replied "So what!" It turned out that his Zulus were themselves armed to the teeth.

The questioning began and Buthelezi and his entourage had obviously never before been asked about his collaboration with the apartheid state, the fact that he was bribed to be a fifth columnist in the fight against apartheid. "You die, you die!" one of his supporters screamed at me. A speaker in the sound system suddenly exploded like a gun shot. At the same time, the braces clipped on to my trousers popped.

If any one ever sees a repeat of the programme and is drawn to the fact that my right hand remained constantly in my pocket will know it was not to keep my finger on the trigger but to prevent my trousers from falling to my ankles.

The programme ended with Buthelezi chanting the Zulu war cry and me fearing that my life was coming brutally to its close. No chance of a repeat in Cape Town, which is a far cry from the depravity of Buthelezi's Durban.