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.)

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496