Lost boy

The Case of Stephen Lawrence

Brian Cathcart <em>Viking, 444pp, £16.99</em>

After six cold and melancholy years for the Lawrence family, it was at last official. Racial prejudice had killed Stephen Lawrence. Racial prejudice at the very heart of the criminal justice system had helped his killers escape justice. That there was an inquiry at all is one of the few positive outcomes of new Labour's election victory. The result was an overflow of sympathy for the bereaved parents. The Lawrences, unusually for people in their position, became overnight stars in a parasitic celebrity culture that thrives on sex and death.

Mercifully this phase did not last too long. There were more serious and considered responses. Richard Norton-Taylor's inspired documentary play recaptured the highlights of the inquiry, which were dramatised on the stage of the Tricycle Theatre in north-west London by its artistic director, Nicholas Kent. Every night the audiences stayed behind to discuss the issues raised by the inquiry. The theatre had become a site for collective therapy and for speaking bitternesses. Television executives, usually obsessed with ratings and increasingly contemptuous of "issue-based" documentaries or drama, were compelled to react. BBC2 filmed the Tricycle play and put it on the small screen. ITV commissioned Paul Greengrass, a gifted writer-director of documentary drama, to produce a version of the Lawrence affair. The result was a triumph, showing once again the power of television to discuss serious issues and engage the attention of millions without insulting the viewers' intelligence.

As a result we are now extremely well informed about the general outlines of this tragedy. We've shared in the anguish of that terrible night when Stephen failed to return home. We've understood the physical chill and fear that gripped his parents on their way to the hospital to be shown the body of their son. We've imagined the long years of suffering, of insomnia, of hearing Stephen's voice in the kitchen, his footsteps on the street. And always the torment of those terrible "ifs": if only Stephen and Duwayne had run away when they first sighted the gang of young whites bent on killing; if only Stephen had not gone out that night; if only there had been more than two of them to deal with the attack.

Stage and television plays, for good reason, concentrate on the most dramatic moments of the inquiry, the police investigation or the personal tragedy. The restrictions of time and genre preclude an exhaustive exploration of every detail, and it is here that books can help. If what is required is a true history, only a good book can fulfil such a need, and Brian Cathcart has provided us with such a book. Invaluable on every level, it is the first detailed narrative account of the case. Meticulously researched and skilfully crafted, The Case of Stephen Lawrence deserves a place in every public library, including that of the police college in Hendon.

Why did the Lawrence case become such a cause celebre? Stephen was not the first black youth to be killed in a racist attack; numerous blacks and Asians have been murdered by racists in recent decades. A fair number have died in police custody. There were protests and newspaper articles and documentaries on Channel 4 and Granada TV, but nothing ever happened afterwards. The cases were forgotten. The Lawrence case turned out to be utterly different. Why? Principally because Neville and Doreen Lawrence were determined to seek the truth and refused to give up on the struggle for justice. They refused to let their grief numb them into passivity. Their loss had made them angry and they refused to be treated as invisible people by the system. It was the courage of this couple that laid the basis for a continuous campaign. It was their refusal to stand back that brought them the support of lawyers such as Michael Mansfield, Jane Deighton and Imran Khan.

Cathcart draws sympathetic portraits of the Lawrences and of Duwayne Brooks, who was at Stephen's side on the night of the murder. He describes the enormous pressure they were under to accept the police version of events, demonstrating how the hostility of the police towards Doreen Lawrence failed to shake her confidence. Yet reading the inquiry report when it was first published and now this book has still left one question unanswered. Was it just racism, or did this case reveal other forces at work in-side the police force? And if so, who will police the police?

It is hardly a secret that for the past 30 years two concurrent cancers have been working themselves out inside the Metropolitan Police. Neither was benign, but of the two, corruption was even more institutionalised than racial prejudice. The inquiry, the plays and this book concentrate on the racism. Cathcart alludes to the Private Eye corruption allegations, but cannot pursue them here because of a pending libel action. It is very likely, I think, that both were involved in the failure of the police to arrest Lawrence's killers. Of the five youths named as murderers by the Daily Mail, one is the son of Clifford Norris, a leading criminal currently in prison. The police officer assigned to look after Duwayne Brooks, the only witness to the murder, was the same person who was filmed by police surveillance videos exchanging packages with Norris in a London pub. Attempts by Mansfield to explore this connection further were discouraged by the inquiry.

Why? Curiously the report criticises police investigations of this aspect of the affair: " Even with the knowledge that the evil influence of Clifford Norris was at work, the investigation team failed to seek him out. It is inexplicable that more was not done until the summer of 1994 to arrest Clifford Norris." The inquiry's conclusion, however, is that "the problems in seeking to establish that there was collusion or corruption by inference are obvious . . . No collusion or corruption is proved to have infected the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder. It would be wrong and unfair to conclude otherwise."

Could it be that the reason it is not proved is that the inquiry, too, did not pursue the question of corruption with the same zeal with which it sought to lay bare the racism? And if so, why? It is inexplicable that more was not done, in the immortal words of Deep Throat during the Watergate affair, to "follow the money".

Cathcart cites revealing evidence of Clifford Norris trying to buy off a victim stabbed by his son in another incident. Norris allegedly offered the stabbed man money or a bullet in the head and reassured him that he shouldn't worry about the police. The implication was that he had already taken care of them. Norris is in prison. Why did the inquiry fail to seek him out and question him in public view? The young white skinhead who walked into the police station and, in the course of naming the killers, also mentioned the Norris connection, was ignored. Perhaps it was genuinely felt that there was no real connection. Perhaps some invisible hand steered the inquiry in another direction, fearful that the racism charge was doing enough damage to the Met and that corruption should be saved for another day. Whatever the reason, one is left with an uneasy feeling that we have not yet uncovered the whole truth about this affair.

Will the Lawrence case change anything at all? Undoubtedly it will make the police more careful; it may even lead to the recruitment of more non-whites to the police force. But I doubt whether the Home Office seriously envisages anything more. Nor would they if Paul Boateng ever became Home Secretary. The politics of empathy, so dominant in our culture today, are by their very nature emotional and volatile. They have no lasting impact. The people who have been temporarily moved by a particular tragedy soon sink back to a trusting acquiescence. This suits our politicians only too well. They always seem to prefer sainted halfwits to heretics who challenge existing dogmas.