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.)

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide