BLS LLB students write for our blog – Aimee Denholm on the Stephen Lawrence case

We are delighted to be able to add student contributions to our PCC Law Blog, under the supervision of BLS academic staff. Here, in the first of our student blogs, LLB student Aimee Denholm discusses issues arising from the Stephen Lawrence case:

On the 22nd April 1993, 18 year old Stephen Lawrence was murdered during a sudden and immediate racist attack.  Whilst he was waiting peacefully at a bus stop in Eltham with close friend Duwayne Brooks, a group of white youths crossed the road to approach them; one of the boys was yelling racist abuse.  Duwayne Brooks managed to escape but Stephen Lawrence was not as lucky.  He was fatally stabbed twice in the upper torso, severing major blood vessels.  Upon inspection at the post-mortem, injuries to the left side of his body, back and cheek were also noted.  Stephen had obviously tried to get up after the attack and run after his friend but failed as he was found on the pavement and taken to hospital where he later died.  This brutal, racist killing shocked the world and created media frenzy, therefore putting huge pressure on the Police to find and reprimand the attackers.  Stephen’s parents began a private prosecution in April 1996 against Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and Neil Acourt but the case failed due to insufficient evidence.  The case was launched back into the public eye in September 2010 when David Norris was arrested and charged with Murder.  Following this, new DNA evidence was discovered on the jacket worn by Gary Dobson and therefore a retrial for murder was granted in November 2011.  Norris and Dobson were tried together in January 2012 and found guilty.

A number of important issues arose from the murder of Stephen Lawrence.  One of these was the conduct of the Police during their investigations.  In their attempts to achieve a speedy conviction, the investigation team cut a number of corners that effectively resulted in the collapse of the case when it was brought to court.  In particular the Police attempted to forge the identity parade by providing descriptions for Duwayne Brooks before he entered the room.  In reality Duwayne was not in a good position to identify any of the attackers due to the speed at which the assault took place.  Not only was their consolidation of evidence found to be rather poor but the general treatment of the victim’s family and friends was also heavily criticised.  Stephen Lawrence’s parents launched a complaint against the Police and the Home Secretary asked Sir William Macpherson to chair an inquiry in 1999.[1]  The inquiry concluded that ‘The investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers’.[2]  The suggested action to be taken after the inquiry included reviewing racial awareness training and restoring the trust and confidence in the police that they held no racial prejudice.[3]

The Macpherson Report also raised some interesting legal issues.  The advantages and disadvantages of the rule against double jeopardy had been a highly contentious issue prior to the inquiry.  There had been no attempts to reform this area of law before the report but its publication reopened the debate.[4]  The report highlights that the law at that time did not permit a second trial because the defendants would be unlikely to receive a fair trial as a result of the amount of press coverage such a high profile case would receive.  However, Criminal Justice Act 2003 has now created an exception to the rule against double jeopardy allowing a second trial of any serious offence providing that the s.76 requirements are satisfied.[5] These include that the s.78 requirements for new and compelling evidence are satisfied, that it is in the public interest for the application to proceed, and that the obligations to comply with Article 31 and 34 of the Treaty on European Union are not breached.[6]  The statute makes clear that the nature of the new evidence is a very important consideration when deciding whether to quash the acquittal.  The s.78 requirements entail that the evidence is reliable, substantial, and in the context of the case proves to be highly probative.[7]  This was a primary focus for the judges when deciding to quash Dobson’s acquittal.  The new forensic evidence was held to be reliable, substantial and highly probative because the new DNA evidence on the jacket placed Dobson at the scene and having a role in the killing of Stephen Lawrence.  It is reasonable to assume that, if this evidence had been available during the first trial, the chances of Gary Dobson being acquitted would have been significantly reduced.  The judges in this case highlight the two sides of the argument for the rule against double jeopardy, as their arguments balance the reasonable assumption that new compelling evidence should be able to be used against Dobson’s right to a fair trial.  They found that any danger of an unfair trial could be overcome by placing faith in the Jury to interpret the new evidence impartially in a fair and unbiased manner.

There were originally five members of the gang that were thought to be connected to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.  It now remains to be seen whether the police will find any more ‘new and compelling evidence’ to convict any of the other boys allegedly involved in the attack.

[1] Rachel Morris, ‘A Summary of The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’,  (Cm 4262-I), p. 1.

[2] Ibid, p. 4.

[3] Ibid, p. 5.

[4] Paul Roberts, ‘Justice for all? Two bad arguments (and several good suggestions) for resisting double jeopardy reform’, E. & P. 2002, 6(4), 197-217, at p. 198

[5] Jill Molloy, ‘Quashing an Acquittal and Double Jeopardy’, 75 J. Crim. L. 272 2011, at p. 273-4

[6] Criminal Justice Act 2003, s.76(4).

[7] Criminal Justice Act 2003, s.78(3).

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