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BEHIND THE scandal of the failure to catch Stephen Lawrence's killers lies an epic tale of incompetence, a catalogue of mistakes and lost opportunities, and a police culture that, at some level, holds black life cheap.
Stephen Lawrence was a gifted and extrovert 18-year-old with a close family and a wide circle of friends. He was studying for A-levels and wanted to become an architect. He was killed as he waited for a bus home in April 1993 with a friend, Duwayne Brooks, with whom he had spent the evening.
The murder took place in Eltham, a mainly white suburb of south-east London that is regarded by many residents as the "frontline" against the migration of black people from the inner city. There had been two racist killings there in recent years.
The first police officers arrived on the scene to find Stephen, who had been stabbed twice in the chest, bleeding to death on the pavement, and Duwayne pacing up and down in an agitated state.
None of the officers administered first aid; nor, despite Duwayne pointing out the direction in which the gang had fled, did they launch a proper search for Stephen's assailants.
Although it seemed likely that the killers lived locally, officers did not conduct house-to-house inquiries because they thought it was too late to wake people up. The only people seen behaving suspiciously that night were five white youths who drove past the murder scene twice, laughing and jeering. But although a call was put out over the police radio, the car was not stopped for a week.
It was later established that its occupants had included two violent racists convicted in connection with the murder in 1991 of a black boy, Rolan Adams. Perhaps it was coincidence that drew them to the spot where Stephen was knifed. Perhaps not.
Meanwhile, at the Brook Hospital, in Shooters Hill, where Stephen had been taken, relations between police and his parents got off to a disastrous start. Neville and Doreen Lawrence say that no officers spoke to them at the hospital. Inspector Ian Little begs to differ. According to his account, he approached them outside the resuscitation room and said: "We've got a young lad in there. He's dead, we don't know who is he, but we'd like to clarify that point. If it's not your son, then all well and good, but we do need to know."
In the succeedings days, the relationship between police and the family broke down completely. The Lawrences say they were treated as gullible simpletons by John Bevan and Linda Holden, the two liaison officers assigned to the family, and given next to no information about the progress of the murder inquiry.
The two officers demanded to know the identity of friends and relations who were in the Lawrences' house when they visited. Their attempts to investigate Stephen's background and character only added to his parents' perception that, as far as police were concerned, a young black man must have been up to no good.
Over the next two days, detectives - who were later to complain that they came up against a "wall of silence" in the local community - received 39 tips from 26 anonymous and named informants. The same names came up time and again: Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson, Luke Knight. The youths were said to be members of a local gang that carried knives and had been involved in previous violent attacks.
These five youths could have been arrested within 48 hours of the murder. Their houses could have been searched, identification parades could have been held while memories were still fresh.
Instead, Detective Superintendent Ian Crampton, who was in charge for the first three days, decided to delay arrests. His successor, Detective Superintendent Brian Weeden, who then led the investigation for 15 months, did the same.
Poor judgement alone was not to blame; Det Supt Weeden has admitted he had such a shaky grasp of criminal law that he believed he needed hard evidence, rather than reasonable grounds for suspicion, to make arrests.
Eight other possible suspects were prematurely eliminated, according to the Macpherson report. These included Blue Stuart, a relative of the Acourts, and Michael Bunn, a friend of theirs, as well as Bradley and Scott Lamb, the Acourts' elder twin half-brothers.
While detectives bungled and procrastinated, evidence may have been removed under the noses of a police surveillance team watching the Acourts' home. Members of the team twice saw dustbin bags that apparently contained clothes being taken away, but were unable to alert the incident room because they had no radios or mobile telephones.
Four of the five suspects lived locally; they were teenagers and likely to boast about their exploits. There were plenty of potential witnesses among the young people on the local council estates and a few were questioned.
The witnesses were young, vulnerable and anxious. Detective Sergeant John Davidson, a tough, middle-aged Scot, was the officer dispatched to win their confidence. Most refused to cooperate. Some of their parents even threatened to sue the police for harassment.
A fortnight after the murder, Det Supt Weeden finally authorised arrests, on the same day that the Lawrences met President Nelson Mandela, who was visiting London. The Macpherson report says that these "outside pressures" probably influenced his decision.
Officers who searched the suspects' homes had been briefed that the youths were known to hide knives under floorboards. Not a single floorboard was removed during the searches. The interviews with the five were cursory. Jamie Acourt's lasted six minutes.
Astonishingly, the only fruit of the surveillance operation - a photograph showing Dobson with Norris - was not given to detectives interviewing Dobson, who denied knowing Norris. Witnesses who attended identification parades were left in a room together, in a flagrant breach of procedure.
The result of this saga of sluggishness and ineptitude was that in July 1993, when the Lawrences were in Jamaica burying their son, they learnt that the Crown Prosecution Service had dropped all charges, citing lack of evidence.
And that, as far as Britain's finest police force is concerned, would have been that, were it not for the fact that Neville and Doreen Lawrence are possessed of a singular courage and tenacity.
They suspected that the investigation had gone badly wrong. They suspected that racism had played a part. They also alleged, later, that the case had been hampered by a corrupt link between police officers and Clifford Norris, the criminal father of one of the suspects. The Macpherson report has not found evidence to support that.
Back then, all they knew was that no one had been punished for their son's murder, and that was intolerable. The grieving parents simply refused to give up. If the authorities in whom they had placed their trust would not prosecute Stephen's killers, they would do it themselves.
Thus was launched only the fourth private prosecution for murder in more than a century. The police investigation team, now led by an energetic new detective superintendent, Bill Mellish, decided to co-operate.
He handed over evidence that included the now infamous video that was shot with a secret surveillance camera planted in Dobson's home in late 1994. The footage shows four of the five suspects brandishing knives and fantasising about killing black people.
The trial went ahead at the Old Bailey in 1996 of three of the youths: Dobson, Knight and Neil Acourt. But the judge, Mr Justice Curtis, refused to admit crucial identification evidence by Duwyane Brooks, and Michael Mansfield, QC, who was heading the prosecution, was forced to abandon the case. The three defendants were formally acquitted on the direction of the judge.
This was the bleakest period for the Lawrences. But in February 1997 the case gained a new momentum when the five suspects turned up at the inquest and refused to answer questions, each mockingly invoking his privilege against self-incrimination.
The public was outraged; so was the Daily Mail, not normally a newspaper that campaigned for the rights of black people. But Mr Lawrence had carried out plastering work at the house of the Mail's editor, Paul Dacre. Dacre took the unprecedented step of placing the photographs of the five on its front page under the headline "Murderers".
That extraordinary front page added to the pressure on the Government to hold a public inquiry. The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, had refused to meet their request. But in May came the general election and the Labour government. One of the first actions of the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was to order a judicial inquiry chaired by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, a former High Court judge.
That inquiry, which began in March last year, dissected the first murder investigation, providing the Lawrences, finally, with the answers they needed. It has found that the investigation was undermined not only by staggering incompetence, but also a "pernicious and institutionalised racism".
The murder of one boy, the campaign of one couple, set in train a sequence of events that could never have been anticipated. Sir William has recommended a radical programme for reform of the police service and the criminal justice system, and the Government has listened. Thus the death of Stephen Lawrence will have changed the social and political landscape.