The murder of Stephen Lawrence - A stinking shambles of police racism and corruption

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The first stage of the public inquiry into police handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 has ended after 57 days of evidence. Each day has brought new revelations of police racism and a negligence so gross that no one can doubt the police deliberately ensured Stephen's killers would never be brought to justice. Cat Wiener reports.

A wall of lies and incompetence

The police said they faced 'a wall of silence' in their search for evidence. This was a lie. The internal Police Complaints Authority inquiry concluded the police had satisfactorily followed up every lead. This was a total whitewash.

Within 24 hours of the murder, witnesses were coming forward. At 2pm on the next day, a man told police of a local gang of youths who went around threatening people with knives and gave two names - Neil Acourt and David Norris - and an address. That evening, a young skinhead, given the pseudonym James Grant, named two of Stephen's murderers, Jamie Acourt and David Norris. He indicated two sources: Witness B, who could identify two men he had seen running from the murder scene, and Witness K, who had visited the Acourts' home soon after the murder and seen them changing their clothes and wiping a knife. DC Budgen rushed upstairs to tell his senior officer, Detective Inspector Bullock.

Bullock showed no interest, simply telling Budgen to log the information, and Grant was sent on his way. The record said: 'Acourts call themselves the Krays. You can only join their gang if you stab someone. They carry knives and weapons most days. David Norris stabbed Stacy Benefield a month ago in order to prove himself...a young Pakistani boy was murdered last year in Well Hall of the Acourts killed [him]. They also stabbed a young lad...He had a bag placed over his head and was stabbed in the legs and arms in order to torture him.' Over the next two days, police discovered that the Acourt brothers and David Norris had criminal records for violent behaviour. Stacy Benefield was traced and volunteered a statement. Meanwhile, letters and phone calls naming the Acourts, Norris and Gary Dobson and, later, Luke Knight, continued to come in.

Detective Sergeant Davidson, who had 25 years' experience, held a number of meetings with Grant. Every 'docket' of information relating to these meetings subsequently went missing. Davidson also interviewed Witness B and dismissed him as a suggestible 'Walter Mitty'. He insisted that Witness K was never named by Grant and had no recollection of meeting him. Grant insists he did name him on the first day and Witness K's parents in fact complained at the time of Davidson's brusqueness in dealing with a young, frightened teenager known to the killers. Witness K was also the source of information for Michelle Casserley, a friend of the Acourts, who wrote in her diary: 'Acourts stabbed a black boy up Well Hall Road. Jamie and Neil, Gary, David, Lukie.' She was not interviewed for nearly two weeks.

At the inquiry Detective Inspector Owen, controller of police informants at Greenwich police station, contradicted Bullock's claim that he registered Grant as an informer. A registered police informant cannot be interviewed without the permission of his controller. When asked by the Lawrences' barrister, Michael Mansfield, if Bullock's pretence constituted 'a smokescreen' to cover up Grant's evidence, Owen remained silent.

Local people passed on their suspicions to the Lawrence family, who communicated them to the police. When, after ten days, no arrests had been made, the Lawrences approached Detective Chief Superintendent Isley with a list of names. He screwed the piece of paper up into a ball.

The fiasco continues

It is now clear that within two days of Stephen's murder, the police had enough evidence to arrest the five suspects. Unbelievably, after more than 30 years as a police officer, senior investigating Detective Chief Superintendent Brian Weedenclaimed he had not known he could make arrests based on 'reasonable suspicion' alone. Instead, a 'surveillance' operation was set up. The police photographers did not even have a mobile phone to call for backup when they saw the suspects removing bags potentially containing incriminating evidence. The police were playing for time.

However, by 7 May, although the evidence was exactly the same as it had been 48 hours after the killing, pressure was building up. On 6 May, the Lawrences held a high-profile meeting with Nelson Mandela during his visit to Britain; a potentially explosive march against the British National Party headquarters in Welling was planned for that weekend. (Duwayne Brookes, the key witness who was with Stephen when he was murdered, was to be arrested on that march and that fact later used to discredit his trial evidence.) The five suspects were arrested and a number of weapons, including knives, were seized. But the fiasco continued.

Gary Dobson was interviewed by Davidson and denied even knowing Norris; Davidson was not told about police surveillance pictures that would have shown this to be a lie. An eyewitness who attended an identity parade left after being kept waiting for nine hours. Another witness refused to attend further parades after an inspector called out his name, identifying him to suspects. A police sergeant, who had, apparently, previously discredited the evidence of a key witness in the trial of Rolan Adams' murderers, went on to tell a series of lies which discredited Duwayne Brookes' identification of Stephen's murderers.

Small wonder that when the case came to trial at the Old Bailey in July 1993 charges against Jamie Acourt and David Norris were dropped at the committal hearings for lack of evidence, and Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight were acquitted. In 1996, at the inquest into Stephen's death, all five claimed privilege and refused to answer any questions. In 1997 the Lawrence family brought a private prosecution against Jamie Acourt and David Norris. The judge ruled key identification evidence inadmissible and the two were acquitted without their case ever having gone before a jury. None of the five men can be tried again in a criminal court on the charge of murdering Stephen.

In 1993, the police had attempted to cover their backs by commissioning an internal inquiry. Roderick Barker, who accepted the job after five other senior police officers turned it down, was specifically told to go easy on the police so as not to damage 'morale'. He fulfilled his role splendidly, quoting every piece of information given him by senior officers as fact and concluding that the investigation 'has been progressed satisfactorily and all lines of inquiry correctly pursued'. However, a later review by Kent police dismissed the report as 'highly damaging nonsense' and so inconsistent and vacuous was Barker's evidence at the public inquiry that its chairman, Sir William McPherson, concluded Barker's 'credibility in vital matters has been much undermined...his review is likely to be regarded by us as indefensible.' What, then, lay behind this sham?

Police corruption

David Norris' father, Cliff Norris, a notorious southeast London gangster and arms dealer now in prison, had a reputation for buying off corrupt police officers. A Police Complaints report revealed his very close connections with a Scotland Yard flying squad officer while under surveillance by Customs & Excise in the late 1980s.

The officer was not disciplined. Interestingly, he had worked for Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Crampton, the officer in charge of the first few days of the Lawrence investigation. Crampton had given him a warm recommendation when he was hauled up for his misdemeanours - 'reliable and no time had I any reason to question or suspect his integrity'. This corrupt officer was put in charge of escorting Duwayne Brookes to give evidence at the Old Bailey. Clifford Norris also ensured his son David's acquittal for the stabbing of Stacy Benefield, helped by a criminal associate, Joey Pyle, a former associate of the Krays. The foreman of the Benefield jury was a relative of Pyle. During a break in the trial, the foreman (later jailed for cheque fraud) assured David Norris he would be all right. Clifford Norris is also alleged to have given Benefield £2,000 to change his story.

British police, racist police

Throughout, police treated the Lawrence family with suspicion, implied Stephen had been involved in burglary, didn't inform them about the progress of the investigation and attempted to blame and discredit the Lawrence family campaign for 'hindering' the investigation. During questions by the police legal team at the inquiry, Doreen Lawrence stopped proceedings to ask: 'Am I on trial or something? From the time of my son's murder I have not been treated as a victim' and demanded explanations from the police about what went on. 'They're sorry they got caught out, but not about the mistakes they made.'

But at least the inquiry has exposed the blatant racism of the police for all to see. Hundreds of black people who thronged to the inquiry or read the (better late than never) saturation coverage in the mainstream press will have seen their own experiences reflected in Doreen Lawrence's comment that no black person can ever trust the police. A survey showed Londoners' confidence in the police had almost halved.

Senior Metropolitan officers realised they had to engage in a damage limitation exercise. So Assistant Police Commissioner Ian Johnston - who in February 1997 was still saying 'We did all we could' - was dispatched to the inquiry to apologise to the Lawrence family on the Met's behalf. But behind the public relations exercise, the use of CS gas on black protesters at the inquiry shows the police have learned nothing.

Whatever the final recommendations of the inquiry, police will continue to treat black people with contempt. Police harassment will still be routine - black men are eight times more likely than white men to be subjected to stop-and-search procedures. Meanwhile, no police officer has ever been charged for the murder of black people such as Brian Douglas and Wayne Douglas, Joy Gardner or Ibrahima Sey. Police collusion and cover-ups for racists, whether on the streets or in their own ranks, will remain the norm.

The vicious racists who murdered Stephen and were identified by 26 different police informants in the first two weeks; who were captured on video by police in 1994 brandishing knives and fantasising about hacking black people to pieces have only the faintest threat of civil proceedings hanging over them.

But what of the senior officers in the case, now all comfortably retired? Doreen Lawrence has demanded that, at the very least, they lose their pensions. We agree. They should not be allowed to emerge unscathed and untouchable from the stinking shambles of racism, corruption and incompetence that set five vile racists free, no doubt to abuse, torture and even murder again.

from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 144