After the end of the public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence affair, I visited a police officer who was a patient in the Priory. He was blameless, indeed he had done good work on the case, but a combination of personal difficulties and professional stress had brought on a breakdown. “You know,” he said to me, “everybody this case touches, it hurts.”
His words came back to me after the latest flurry in the story, when the Daily Mail announced that detectives had achieved a “sensational forensic breakthrough” and the infamous five suspects were “set to be rearrested”. Within hours, the talk was of something quite different. Why had this news emerged at this moment, when the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, was fighting for his job? Was it just a cynical leak, a distraction from all the bad news?
Blair was left looking even worse than he did before the Mail splash, when he had been deep in the de Menezes mire. The Lawrence “breakthrough” story, ostensibly a positive one for the police, had turned around and bitten back. Touch this case, I thought, and it hurts you.
Though the Met has always said it would never close the file on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it is still impressive that they should have gone back yet again to that dismal mountain of documents and exhibits already combed by half a dozen separate police teams since 1993.
Every time, the investigators are confronted with the reality first ex posed to the public at the Mac pher son inquiry: the best chance of gathering evidence that might have led to a conviction was thrown away in the days after the murder. While officers cast about desultorily for the perfect witness, and mounted a surveillance operation worthy of the Keystone Cops and generally sat on their hands, potential forensic evidence evaporated, fell away, was washed off or perhaps deliberately destroyed.
The witnesses – this murder was seen by four people besides the victim and his assailants – were given time to forget, to be intimidated or to be tainted in other ways.
Duwayne Brooks, Stephen’s friend who had been attacked himself and was the best witness, was allowed to sink into something resembling a nervous breakdown. And across that corner of Eltham, there was time for fear and warnings to spread, for the influence of violent heavyweight criminals to be felt.
So, when the arrests were finally made, two weeks after the killing, they led nowhere and the CPS had almost nothing to work with. That sort of damage cannot be undone. Ever since, the job of tackling the case has been a challenge to the imagination of investigators. The second team to try, under Superintendent Bill Mellish in 1994-95, threw the book at it.
Witnesses were re-interviewed; the forensic evidence, such as it was, was revisited exhaustively; David Norris’s criminal father, Cliff, who was thought to be the chief intimidator, was captured and jailed to remove his influence; attempts were made to split Gary Dobson, thought to be the weakest of the suspects, away from his friends; and famously the group was subjected to video surveillance.
Even then the CPS did not think there was enough evidence and the Lawrence family took the extraordinary decision of taking a private prosecution for murder all the way to the Old Bailey. It failed, because despite all the efforts of Mellish and his team, the case still rested on what Duwayne Brooks had seen, and he wasn’t really fit to testify.
Ever since, the pickings for investigators have grown steadily slimmer. Mellish believed that even when he was on the case, the five suspects had been coached by professional criminals to avoid police attempts to trick them into revealing themselves; no doubt they are still on their guard. Certainly, there is no sign of them falling out with one another.
As for other witnesses who were out and about on the night of the murder, there are a handful who, if they do know something, have never been prepared to put it on the record.
There is the man known to the Macpherson inquiry as Witness K, who visited the home of Neil and Jamie Acourt about 90 minutes after the murder. Local gossip recounted afterwards says that he saw scenes of panic, with members of the suspect group stripped to the waist, their hair wet as if from a hurried attempt to remove evidence.
There is also Witness EE, who was a sworn enemy of Neil Acourt and said he saw him out that evening, but in circumstances that are difficult to reconcile with anybody else’s story. And there is EE’s girlfriend, who walked past Lawrence and Brooks moments before the attack, heading in roughly the direction from which the attack came. Since she had previously been Neil Acourt’s girlfriend, she would certainly have recognised him if she saw him.
These three witnesses have all been re-interviewed several times over the years, without significant result. Whether they have been intimidated, or don’t want to help, or genuinely don’t know anything, we don’t know. But we do know that by now they have issued so many firm denials that a different story, if they came up with one, would be open to easy challenge in court.
Which leaves forensic evidence. The clothing taken from the suspects’ homes in raids two weeks or more after the killing presumably still survives in evidence bags. Also preserved are thousands of strips of Sellotape covered in fibres lifted from the fabric of those clothes. Then there is the evidence lifted from Stephen Lawrence’s clothes and body, particularly his hands.
The first investigation examined 646 fibres in detail; the second was more exhaustive, and the Lawrence family even dipped into their support fund to pay for an independent forensic scientist to help. On that occasion 1,071 fibres were identified as worthy of close scrutiny, but even then the results were feeble: two or three woollen and polyester strands that were consistent with Gary Dobson’s clothing but could also have come from any number of other sources.
If the Mail is to be believed, this is now the focus of the latest investigation, and new scientific techniques are being employed. Pressed after the Mail‘s story, the police have confirmed that there has been progress, but they insisted that there is still a long way to go.
Given the steadily shrinking possibilities for cracking the case 14 years on, their caution is understandable. Reinvestigating this particular murder is not the stuff of publicity stunts.
Brian Cathcart is author of “The Case of Stephen Lawrence” (Penguin) and professor of journalism at Kingston University