Following the arrest and arraignment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn
, there has been considerable speculation as to whether he will be able to receive a fair trial, both in view of the way the case has been reported by the American media and due to a further allegation from France dating back to 2002.
If that argument can be made out for a prominent figure on the world stage accused of attempted rape, it can be made out in spades for two British men who are now facing trial
for a murder committed eighteen years ago.
In 1993, there were over five hundred murders in the United Kingdom, but only a handful made the headlines, the most shocking – unarguably – being that of two year old James Bulger by two ten year old boys
on February 12.
The second most notorious murder, for entirely different reasons, was that of eighteen year old Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was waiting at a bus stop in South London when he was the victim of a gang attack. Because he was black and his attackers were not, and one of them had used the dreaded N word, the murder was branded racially motivated and “racist”.
Stephen Lawrence was left to die in the gutter, and when the police arrived fairly promptly they were greeted by his companion Duwayne Brooks - according to WPC Smith - with the words
"Who called you f*****g c**ts anyway, pigs......I only called the f*****g ambulance".
Although there were independent witnesses to the crime, as with all sudden and traumatic incidents, their evidence was difficult to evaluate. The Metropolitan Police began an investigation with all the usual lines of inquiry, which involved checking family, friends, neighbours, and ruling out individuals and motives one by one.
The victim’s family, in particular Stephen’s mother Doreen Lawrence, was unhappy with the police investigating her son’s background, especially when the suggestion was raised of a possible drug connection. Although this was quickly ruled out, she thought they had followed this line of inquiry purely because Stephen was black.
Five youths (the Acourt gang) were accused initially, but in his original witness statement, Duwayne Brooks claimed there were six members of the gang that murdered his friend; another, independent witness, claimed the knifeman had long blond hair; none of those eventually charged with the murder did.
When the case came to court, it was not considered strong enough, and all five were discharged. Not satisfied with this, Doreen Lawrence and her husband Neville initiated a private prosecution, which collapsed, but the campaigning continued with the Acourt gang (the Acourt brothers – Jamie and Neil, Gary Dobson, Luke Knight and David Norris) being forced to run the gauntlet at an inquiry where on legal advice they all refused to testify.
More serious than this, on February 14, 1997
, the Daily Mail
newspaper openly branded them murderers on its front page. They were also subjected to intrusive surveillance of dubious legality including the planting of a video transmitter in one of their homes, but although their language and general behaviour exposed them as unpleasant individuals, not one shred of evidence was ever adduced to implicate them in the murder.
In 1999, Sir William Macpherson published a White Paper
(with a pink cover!) in which he made a large number of assertions and an even larger number of recommendations, many of which demonstrated that like Doreen Lawrence he had no idea how the police investigate murders and other serious crimes. His definition of racism
“Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form.”
a definition that is so breathtakingly broad that it can be used to encompass much innocuous behaviour, but it was his recommendations that were the most serious. Recommendation number 38 read: “That consideration should be given to the Court of Appeal being given power to permit prosecution after acquittal where fresh and viable evidence is presented.”
This means the abolition of double jeopardy
, a law that protects the individual from the arbitrary abuse of state power. Those who supported its abolition – including people who had nothing to do with either the Stephen Lawrence case or race issues - alluded to it as an eight hundred year old law – Argumentum ad novitatem
. This begs the question how old is the law of murder? Thou shalt not kill!
Unfortunately, although there were dissenting voices, double jeopardy was abolished, ostensibly only for “serious” cases; the first case to be retried under the new provisions was that of William Dunlop, who had previously been tried for and acquitted of the murder of Julie Hogg. He was convicted.
On April 11-2 this year, the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) considered the case of Gary Dobson and David Norris, two members of the Acourt gang. The court was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice himself, the aptly named Lord Judge. At paragraph 15 of the judgment, the three judges of appeal concluded that “After conducting a detailed examination of a large body of evidence we have come to the conclusion that there is sufficient reliable and substantial new evidence to justify the quashing of the acquittal and to order a new trial”.
The full judgment runs to nearly a hundred paragraphs, but only the first seventeen
were released on May 18 when reporting restrictions were lifted.
This decision will have come as a surprise to a great many people, not least because in its February 28, 1999 edition, the Sunday Telegraph
revealed: “In an extraordinary development, police now believe Gary Dobson, and perhaps Luke Knight, are innocent. They believe Dobson, and possibly Knight, were at home at the time of the attack.”
The same report claimed the police were to launch a new investigation focusing on two or three new suspects.
The first question that must now be asked is how can these men receive any sort of fair trial? They have been branded murderers time and time again in the court of public opinion, and if the evidence against these two is so compelling, why haven’t the other three members of the gang also been charged?
The second question is how reliable is this supposedly new forensic evidence? We saw the same thing in the case of ten year old Damilola Taylor, who bled to death in a South London street in November 2000 after allegedly being stabbed in the leg. Four youths were charged with his murder but were all acquitted. After a mishmash of legal proceedings, two brothers were convicted of manslaughter on the basis of supposedly new forensic evidence. Damilola’s final words
were “I’m okay, I’m okay”, which prompted Courtenay Griffiths, QC, defence counsel at the original trial to suggest that no crime had actually been committed, and that Damilola had actually fallen on some broken glass, dying as the result of a bizarre accident
There is of course no question about the manner of Stephen Lawrence’s death, but it remains to be seen if any of the true perpetrators have been correctly identified, and if in view of the deluge of prejudicial media coverage over the best part of two decades, either of these men can receive a fair trial. The only alternative would be for the court to sit without a jury. So-called Diplock courts were used in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles”, and last year four men were convicted of a serious robbery in a juryless trial
after three previous jury trials had collapsed due to allegations of tampering. The problem with trials of this nature is that not only is justice not seen to be done but conviction is almost certainly guaranteed.
It may be that Doreen Lawrence will get the justice she seeks, for her son, the problem is that it will most likely come at too high a price for the rest of us. She and others of her persuasion would have done better to heed the words not of Sir William Macpherson but of Sir William Blackstone in his 1764 COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND. BOOK THE FOURTH.
:” ...all presumptive evidence of felony sould be admitted cautiously: for the law holds, that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” But perhaps that is too much to ask of a still grieving mother.