The Murder of Stephen Lawrence: What happened in the original case and 1999 film?

Paul Greengrass wrote and directed a Bafta-winning drama about the racist killing

Ellie Harrison
Wednesday 25 August 2021 12:29
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Father of Stephen Lawrence says he forgives his son's killers

On the evening of 22 April, 1993, 18-year-old aspiring architect Stephen Lawrence was attacked by a pack of white, racist youths as he waited at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London.

The Black teenager managed to briefly break free from the thugs, who were shouting racial slurs. He ran over 100 metres along the road before he collapsed, bleeding from two stab wounds that proved fatal.

The killing, the incompetent police investigation that followed, and the subsequent cover-up, were all dramatised in a Bafta-winning 1999 film, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.

As ITV prepares to release Stephen – a sequel series to the film that covers the case’s legacy in the years since – we look back on the case and how the story was told in 1999.

What happened in the case 1993-1999

22 April 1993: Stephen Lawrence is murdered as he waits at a bus stop with his friend Duwayne Brooks.

23 April 1993: Suspects are identified after someone leaves a letter giving the names of the suspects in a telephone box. Police surveillance begins on their homes.

4 May 1993: The Laurence family hold a press conference to complain not enough is being done to catch the culprits. They meet with Nelson Mandela a couple of days later to discuss the case.

7 May-23 June 1993: Police arrest brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight. Neil Acourt and Knight are identified by Brooks as part of the gang and they are both charged with murder, which they deny.

29 July 1993: The Crown Prosecution Service drops the charges, saying Brooks’s identification is unreliable.

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Trailer for ITV's new drama 'Stephen', starring Steve Coogan and Sharlene Whyte

22 December 1993: The Southwark coroner halts an inquest into Lawrence’s death after the family’s barrister says there is “dramatic” new evidence.

April 1994: CPS says there is insufficient evidence to bring charges based on the new finding, which was believed to be the identification of more suspects.

September 1994: Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, launch a private prosecution against Dobson, Knight and Neil Acourt. All three deny the charges.

December 1994: Dobson, Norris, Neil Acourt and Knight are all caught on camera using racist and violent language.

25 April 1996: The murder trial begins against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson at the Old Bailey. The case collapses when the judge rules that identification evidence from Brooks is inadmissible. All three are acquitted.

Neville and Doreen Lawrence in 1996

13 February 1997: The inquest resumes and the five suspects refuse to speak.

14 February 1997: The Daily Mail newspaper uses its front page to name the five men it says killed Stephen. The headline reads: “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”

March 1997: An investigation into police conduct on the case is launched, which concludes there were “significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities” but that there was no evidence of racist conduct.

July 1997: Home Secretary Jack Straw announces a judicial inquiry into the killing and subsequent investigation.

March 1998: The inquiry opens and the five suspects are told to give evidence or face prosecution.

July 1998: The Lawrence family call on the Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon to resign. He apologises to them months later.

February 1999: Greengrass’s film is released and the Macpherson report accuses the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism. It makes recommendations aimed at improving police attitudes to racism and includes proposals for changes in the law.

How it was depicted in the 1999 drama

The original drama documentary, written and directed by Greengrass (known for Bloody Sunday and the Jason Bourne films) depicted the 1993 murder and its aftermath exclusively through the eyes of the Lawrence family. It won the Bafta TV Award for Best Single Drama.

Upon its release, producer Mark Redhead told The Guardian: “The truth was that for most of the past five years the Lawrences were told virtually nothing. It was, we felt, more truthful to see the story exclusively from their point of view and never let the audience know any more than they did. For us, the Lawrences’ almost Kafkaesque lack of knowledge and struggle to find out the truth was the heart of the story.”

It was celebrated at the time for its vivid realism: it was shot with a hand-held camera, starred actors who looked like the people involved, and it was filmed at the real locations in Eltham and Jamaica.

Hugh Quarshie and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in ‘The Murder of Stephen Lawrence’

“We’ll shoot through doorways,” Greengrass said when making the film. “It’ll be just as if we are observing it all. Like the Lawrences, we will never quite have the perfect view, we’ll be fighting to see everything.”

The Lawrences were involved in the development of the script and met with Greengrass and Redhead regularly to record extensive interviews.

Greengrass believed the key to telling the story authentically was the actors. He cast Hugh Quarshie and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to play Stephen’s parents Neville and Doreen, and told the stars: “Look I’m white. You’re black. I can’t pretend to really know what it is like to be black in Britain.”

Quarshie and Jean-Baptiste met Neville and Doreen to inform their portrayals. The film also starred Leon Black as Stephen, as well as Ashley Walters, Millicent Gezi, Joseph Kpobie and Brian Bovell.

It showed how the Lawrence family received threats from the accused and were moved to a shabby safe house, where the housing officer told them: “Obviously, it could do a bit of a clean up and stuff... it really is your responsibility. So I’ll leave you to it.”

Of the film’s accuracy, Redhead told The Guardian: “It is not exactly as it happened, but I believe that Neville and Doreen Lawrence gave it their blessing because the performances of the actors in the film captured what it felt like to be in their shoes.

“And if the audience watching the film feels a little of what it is like to be part of a family that suffers a racial murder then we will have made a small contribution to making some sense of this terrible crime and its significance to us today.”

What will the series cover?

Due to the bungled police investigation, the suspects went free in the Nineties. What the film did not cover, because it didn’t happen until 13 years later, was two of the perpetrators – Gary Dobson and David Norris – finally being convicted of murder in 2012.

This development and the case’s legacy is expected to be covered in the new series.

Stephen begins on ITV at 9pm on Monday 30 August.

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