Vicious and unprovoked attack began with `what, what nigger?'

 

Stephen Lawrence and his best friend, Duwayne Brooks, were walking down Well Hall Road in Eltham, south-east London, on April 22nd, 1993, looking for a bus to take them home. Five white youths crossed the road shouting at them "what, what nigger?" In a vicious and unprovoked attack, Stephen was stabbed in the chest, one of the knife wounds punctured a lung, and he died later that night in hospital. Within 48 hours of the attack, witnesses gave the police the names of five local white youths they believed were involved in Stephen's murder. The police decided they did not have enough evidence to arrest them.

At one stage during surveillance of the five they were seen carrying black plastic bags from their home but police officers said they were unable to follow them because they did not have a mobile phone. Three months after his death and just days after a high-profile meeting between Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, and the South African leader Nelson Mandela in London, the police arrested five youths - Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Luke Knight and Gary Dobson. The Crown Prosecution Service dropped a murder case against Knight and Neil Acourt because of insufficient evidence.

In a letter to the Lawrences, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, assured them he was taking a "close personal interest" in the case. An internal review of the investigation concluded that all lines of inquiry were correctly pursued.

Disgusted with the police and the CPS, Neville and Doreen Lawrence launched a private prosecution in 1995 against Norris, the Acourt brothers, Knight and Dobson, and all five were charged with Stephen's murder. Three members of the group - Neil Acourt, Dobson and Knight - were sent for trial at the Old Bailey in April 1996, while Jamie Acourt and David Norris were discharged.

At the trial, the case against the three collapsed when Duwayne Brooks's evidence was ruled inadmissible. The jury acquitted the three. Under the law of "double jeopardy" they could not be charged with the same offence again. The collapse of the trial meant the jury did not see covert video surveillance of the five making racist comments and brandishing knives. One of the youths was shown demonstrating how to stab a black man.

The inquest into Stephen's death, which had been adjourned in December 1993, was reopened in February 1997 and the five youths were called to give evidence. By now the Lawrences were desperate, believing they might never get justice. At the inquest the five youths answered every question that was put to them with the words: "I claim privilege." Nonetheless, the jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing in a "completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths".

Outraged by the arrogance of the five at the inquest, the Daily Mail viewed their actions as an affront to the British judicial system. Its astonishing front-page headline the next day in which it branded the five "murderers" and dared them to sue the paper to prove their innocence blew the lid off the Lawrence murder case.