The ones that got away

What about the gang members not convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence?

Everyone knows who killed Stephen Lawrence. It was a gang of vile thugs, two of whom were convicted of murder yesterday, on the basis of forensic evidence. Everyone thinks they know who the other thugs were in what the criminal law rightly classes as a "joint enterprise". Many even know them by name and would recognise their photographs. It surely can only be a matter of time before the other ones are prosecuted and convicted.

But what do we actually know? As it stands there appears to be no forensic evidence linking any of the other individuals to the horrific crime of Stephen Lawrence's murder. There is also no eye witness evidence which can be put before a court. As the Court of Appeal pointed out regarding the original prosecution when quashing the acquittal of Gary Dobson so that he could again stand trial:

Following their arrests, Knight and Neil Acourt were charged with the murder of Stephen Lawrence, after each of them was identified on identification parades by Duwayne Brooks as part of the attacking group of white youths. However the reliability of these identifications was called into serious question. On any view Brooks had found himself in a frightening situation, with only a brief opportunity for making a correct identification at night, under artificial light, in a desperately fast-moving incident.

Moreover, after he had identified Knight, he himself confirmed to an independent police officer that he had not actually seen the faces of any of the attacking group, but had been given a description of them before he took part in the parades. Accordingly, the prosecution of Knight and Neil Acourt was discontinued.

As to Dobson, he was never identified by anyone. [...]

The evidence of Brooks was crucial to the success of the prosecution, but as we have indicated, it was flawed. The question whether his evidence should be placed before the jury was examined in detail at a voir dire. Brooks gave evidence on three days. After hearing argument, Curtis J concluded that his evidence of identification of any of those involved in the attack on Stephen Lawrence was inadmissible. The judgment was impeccable, the reasoning clear, and the conclusion unavoidable.

And so we have a gap. On one hand, there are three alleged murderers who many sensible and informed people believe with complete certainty were part of the gang which attacked Lawrence. On the other hand, there seems -- at least currently -- to be no available evidence to warrant any prosecution, let alone convictions beyond reasonable doubt.

This is the sort of situation which usually cannot hold. If the matter cannot be tried in a court of law, then it seems it will be tried in the so-called court of popular opinion. But the problem with those who "everybody knows" are guilty is that they sometimes are not, at least not of the crime being alleged. Many miscarriages of justice and media sensations have been on the misconceived basis that they "must" be guilty. Examples do not even have to be listed; we all know them.

Unless there is new evidence -- possibly either in forensic form or a confession by one of the two now convicted murderers -- then the dreadful situation will persist of there not being any further prosecution of the others widely suspected of killing Lawrence. No tabloid campaign or new judicial inquiry can change this stark fact.

Had the police conducted a competent initial murder inquiry in the days after Lawrence's murder, there would perhaps be other evidence. But for whatever bad reason the police did not do so. Such helpful evidence cannot now be contrived, and there cannot be any prosecution without evidence. Mere certainty, however well-grounded and widespread, is not enough. The Crown has to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and popular opinion is not admissible in court.

So what should happen to those suspected of murder, but still at large? Should there be no adverse comments? No negative publicity? Should everyone just hold their tongue? Well, without the prospect of proceedings, there is no "due process" to be respected, as there is no determination of guilt in the offing. In that way, there is no legalistic objection to popular opprobrium. It is not sub judice.

However, one day there could be new evidence. There may be a further advance in forensic science which would affect this case. Or there could be a confession implicating another. In those circumstances, there would need to be "due process" with the innocence being presumed until guilt is proved. But would that now be really possible? There is no doubt that the defence lawyers of those prosecuted would contend a fair trial would not now be possible; but, as the Court of Appeal showed when quashing Dobson's acquittal, the courts can be robust in saying that trials should go ahead even when there has been bad publicity. But this robustness is not inevitable.

It may be important that we can join the clamour of condemning those who look as if they have evaded justice. Unfortunately, that same clamour can also be exploited to help the culprit escape justice. Accordingly, even when not legally required for a current legal case, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty remains a sensible policy. Those seeking to escape justice really do not need any further help to get away with it.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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