Triumph of justice

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

STEPHEN LAWRENCE, WHO was killed in 1993.-AP

STEPHEN LAWRENCE, WHO was killed in 1993.-AP

The Stephen Lawrence case deserves to be studied by police investigators the world over, including in India.

IN the long history of British criminal justice, the case of Stephen Lawrence, the 18-year-old black schoolboy who was killed by some white youth in the heart of London in 1993, will stand out for its many distinguishing features. The first aspect of the case that compels one's attention is the impact it has had on the way the police in the United Kingdom act in response to hate crimes. It is generally believed that they are quicker and more sensitive than before to crimes where the victims are not white.

The second is how public outrage over police sloth and the inadequacy of the law can propel executive action. In the Lawrence case, the outcry of the community as a whole persuaded lawmakers to have a second look at the time-worn principle of double jeopardy, which prohibits a second trial against the same accused for the same offence, and abandon it so as to legalise a second trial. The second trial did the trick and fixed criminal liability on two of the perpetrators of the horrific crime against a hapless youngster whose only fault was that he had a dark skin. Thirdly, the Lawrence investigation proved how guilt, however cleverly concealed, can still be established through an assiduous application of science even if several years have passed after the crime.

The case, therefore, deserves a serious study by police investigators the world over. They can learn from the initial mistakes committed by the Metropolitan Police and also how exactly these were remedied with the help of the victim's family and through forensic science. Prescribing the Lawrence case as compulsory reading for Indian police officers will enhance the quality of homicide investigation in the country. Readers know how murder probes in India are all too often botched up at the police-station level. The more important cases, which get escalated to higher formations of law enforcement, receive slightly better attention though this may not be fully satisfying to the victim's kith and kin.

Lawrence was murdered on April 22, 1993, at Eltham, in south-east London, while he was waiting with a friend, Dwayne Brooks, to board a bus. According to evidence offered by Brooks, Lawrence was stabbed to death by a white gang that shouted racist slogans. The immediate suspects were five youths who were picked up a week after the occurrence. At the identification parade, the only eyewitness, Brooks, identified two of the suspects. But the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which vets charges before a case is taken to court, held that Brooks' testimony was unreliable. (According to many of my friends in the U.K. police, the CPS is not the best of systems to act against wrongdoers, and its demand for the production of the highest standard of evidence is often impractical.)

The shocked parents carried out their own investigation and presented new evidence through a family barrister. This also did not pass muster with the CPS, as a result of which the whole process stalled. In February 1997, the inquest into the murder resumed. It held that Lawrence was killed by five youths in an unprovoked act although the five suspects refused to answer questions. Daily Mail, which was engaged in an admirable crusade in the case, carried pictures of all the five and challenged them to sue the newspaper if they were not actually responsible for the murder. This was a unique pursuit of truth at great risk to oneself. The eventual hauling up of at least two of the suspects can be attributed to the newspaper's relentless campaign. This is something that the Indian media could emulate.

In March 1997, the Independent Police Complaints Authority stepped in and ordered a few officers of the Kent Constabulary to probe the quality of the Met's investigation. The Kent Police team found many omissions and lost opportunities in the Met investigation. However, it differed with the popular view that the Met was racist in conducting its investigation.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the whole happening was the decision of the U.K. government to institute a judicial inquiry under former High Court Justice Sir William Macpherson to get to the bottom of the murder investigation, especially the allegation against the Met that it was biased and callous. The reputed judge's finding (published in 1999) that racism was institutionalised within the Met hit the headlines and paved the way for several reforms, including the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and measures to improve police attitudes to racial differences in British society. Notwithstanding the Macpherson Report, the CPS finally announced in 2004 that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for the Lawrence murder.

What seemed to be the end of the road for the Lawrence investigation took a U-turn in November 2007 with the arrival of some sensational forensic evidence that clinched the issue at least in respect of two suspects, namely, Gary Dobson and David Norris. With the scrapping of the double jeopardy injunction, the stage was set for a fresh trial in November 2011, which concluded on January 3. Dobson was awarded 15 years in prison and Norris 14. The fact that both were juveniles (under 18) when they committed the crime 19 years ago explained the relatively short sentences.

Of particular interest to police investigators is the remarkable work done by LGC, an independent science-based service company that assists the police in the U.K. LGC scientists found red fibres on Lawrence's jacket, which had possibly come from the polo shirt that he was wearing at the time of the murder. The next step was to check whether any of the fibres had been transferred to the suspects' apparel. As luck would have it, LGC scientists found the same fibres on Dobson's jacket and Norris' sweatshirt. Next was the discovery of a bloodstain on one fibre from Lawrence's shirt that had found its way to Dobson's jacket. Both the fibre and blood could be linked to Lawrence. Also, a minute, nearly invisible bloodstain on the back of the collar of Dobson's jacket was identified as having come from Lawrence. As one LGC scientist put it: It was a wet bloodstain which ultimately put the jacket at the scene of the crime, or a short time thereafter.

Once the prosecution demolished the defence argument that the material evidence collected by the investigators could have been contaminated, no conclusion was possible other than that both Dobson and Norris were present at the scene of the crime and participated in it. This was painstaking investigation at its best.

Unique experiment

Two years ago, the U.K. government launched a unique experiment to privatise forensic laboratory services in the country. The deadline to shut down all government forensic facilities and dispense with the 1,600-strong staff is March 2012. This revolutionary move was not out of any great enlightenment but only with a view to cutting the government's budget. It led to a great furore, and many in the media lambasted the government for what they considered a dangerous move.

In hindsight, the critics have possibly been proved wrong, if one goes purely by the remarkable work done by LGC in the Lawrence case and in many others, including the Joanna Yeates, Rachel Nickell and Milly Dowler cases. LGC has eight laboratories all over the country and employs more than 600 people. The big question is whether the new set-up comprising companies such as LGC will be able to cope with the more than 100,000 cases that will be referred to them annually. The U.K. experiment deserves to be watched by us in India. Experienced investigators in the country can recount how they are weighed down by the enormous delay in getting test reports from government-run laboratories. A small measure of outsourcing could ease the huge current backlog.

A final thought on Lawrence's murder. The U.K. has no doubt come a long way from 1993 when racism in society and law enforcement was a harsh reality. There is now greater tolerance of diversity in the workforce and elsewhere. The police seem to be more sensitive and aware of their responsibilities to the immigrant population. But certain police practices are hard to reverse.

The stop and search routine continues, though with less regularity and severity. The perception remains, however, that non-whites, especially black people, are invariably picked up for such treatment. Enlightened police officers such as Bernard Hogan-Howe, the current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, are doing their best to reduce the intensity and frequency of such operations. It is a moot question whether they will succeed enough to convince non-whites that they will be treated fairly by the police. The mere increase in the non-white component of police forces may not do the trick. What is required is a major cultural change across the country and in police forces. This will necessarily take decades.

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