It was “an evil and terrible crime “said the judge. And it took 19 years to convict two of the killers – the other suspected offenders are still at large.
Suburban London on a spring evening in 1993. 18 year old Stephen Lawrence, the son of immigrants from Jamaica, was waiting with a friend for a bus when he was stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack by a gang of young white men.
The suspects were identified in an anonymous letter the day after Stephen’s murder but it took weeks for the police to arrest the suspects. The next 19 years would see a series of dropped charges and acquittals.
Stephen Lawrence’s parents refused to give up their fight for justice. And they did not mince words about why they were having such a hard time getting justice.
“The inquiry into my son’s murder,” Doreen Lawrence said in 1998, “has shown the public at large how black people have been, and still are being, treated by those who say that they treat everyone alike.”
One year later the police itself was in the dock. And the verdict of the judicial inquiry was unequivocal. London’s police force was guilty of institutional racism. Speaking today to the BBC, the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Lord Blair said “the legacy of Stephen Lawrence is just of the most enormous change possible in policing.”
And not just in policing. As a result of the inquiry new laws were passed that obliged government bodies to promote equality.
In the end, it was a revamped police force, new forensic techniques and the discovery of a tiny speck of blood that brought two of the killers to justice.
Today Gary Dobson and David Norris were sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. For Stephen’s mother Doreen: “it’s the beginning of starting a new life because we have been in limbo for so long. Today, we can start moving on and I can take control of my life once more.”
In his sentencing remarks, the judge, Mr Justice Treacy, said that Stephen Lawrence’s killing was “a murder which scarred the conscience of the nation”.
For one of the Lawrence family lawyers, Matthew Ryder, the impact of the murder and how it was handled is such that it has turned out to be, he says, “a Rosa Parks moment for British society.”
There is a lot to read in the British media about the case. We’ve chosen to link below to an opinion piece by Paul Dacre, editor of the conservative tabloid the Daily Mail. It was the Mail that in 1997 decided to go into campaigning mode with the following headline: ” Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”
It was, Dacre writes now, “a monumental risk…In many ways, it was an outrageous, unprecedented step. But I’d like to think that as a result we did a huge amount of good and made a little bit of history that day.”
It was also, he writes further on, “a highly significant moment — the first time that many people in Britain realised that black readers were as important to the Mail as white ones.”