July 13 2024
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Doreen Lawrence: the mother who changed the justice system

Doreen Lawrence: the mother who changed the justice system

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence

Sunday is Mother’s Day and March has been women’s history month. Natalie Smith writes about a mother whose grief and anger fuelled her fight for justice which has not stopped. Doreen Lawrence took on the criminal justice system and changed it.

In 1993, nearly 26 years ago, Doreen Lawrence’s eldest son was murdered. Stephen was 18 years old, a bright, happy young man aspired to be an architect. Knife crime isn’t a new phenomenon that plagues the streets. He was on his way home when he was fatally attacked by a vicious gang of white youths wielding a blade in an unprovoked racist attack.

A murder enquiry began. Within a day an anonymous letter was found in a telephone kiosk naming four people as being responsible. The author informed the police two of them were dangerous knife users who always carried knives and had stabbed before. Where the four lived was disclosed by the anonymous author and the letter concluded with a final warning: ‘Approach these shits with care. Do us all a favour and prove it. Good Luck.’

But despite this clear investigative steer, a tactical decision was taken to wait and not arrest those who had been named.

Stephen’s parents Doreen and Neville, grieving for the loss of their son, were frustrated and angry at the lack of progress in the hunt for the killers. There was much community interest in Stephen’s murder and it was only after a press conference with Nelson Mandela that police decided to alter their tactical decision and arrests were made. Eventually it led to two young men being charged with Stephen’s murder. Stephen’s friend, Duwayne Brooks, who had managed to escape from the gang when they attacked Stephen and avoid being killed himself, picked the two out on an identification parade but the CPS thought his evidence was unreliable and dropped the case against them.

The first few hours of any murder investigation are vital; most police believe it’s during this time that you have the best opportunity of finding the information to solve the crime. The inaction and behaviour by the investigating team had damaged the case and those who Stephen’s parents had been led to believe were his killers, remained free.

A private prosecution was subsequently launched in an attempt to try and bring the individuals to justice. Private prosecutions for murder are rare and the case made its way to the Central Criminal Court for trial. However, after the evidence had begun the judge took the decision that the main identification evidence was inadmissible, the trial collapsed and the three individuals were acquitted.

A very public inquest took place the next year. The verdict was unlawful killing in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five youths. In 1997, four years after Stephen had been murdered the whole country felt they knew who exactly had done it, the front page of the Daily Mail making the public sure but yet they were still walking free.

Doreen and her family had never been satisfied with the investigation into her son’s murder despite the police insisting everything had been done that could be done and many officers had worked tirelessly. Their complaints led to a Police Complaint’s Authority investigation and the conclusions were that there had in fact been great weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities by the Metropolitan Police. Doreen and Neville Lawrence met with the Home Secretary who subsequently launched a public inquiry. The Macpherson inquiry, as it was to become known, was tasked with inquiring into the matters arising from the death of Stephen, in particular to identify the lessons to be learned for the future investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes. In 1999, twenty years ago, the conclusions of that inquiry were to change the Metropolitan Police and would dramatically impact the criminal justice system.

The Macpherson report opened by acknowledging that Doreen and Neville Lawrence were the mainspring of the inquiry:

‘Their persistence and courage in the face of tragedy and bitter disillusionment and disappointment have been outstanding. They attended every hearing of the inquiry and their dignity and courtesy have been an example to all throughout.’

The report concluded that the investigation had never been satisfactory as the public had been led to believe. There had been fundamental errors, professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.

Stephen had been stabbed, in a vicious bowling motion, the nature of his wounds were fatal but he had managedto run 100 yards before collapsing. The police first on the scene had failed to ascertain that he’d been stabbed or give the expected basic first aid. Instead of following the route the killers made off in, one of the first detectives went to a local pub to ask if anyone knew anything about a fight. There had been no fight. Cruelly, all the police liaison with Stephen’s parents had been patronising and they had not been dealt with or treated as they should have been.

Institutional racism had been apparent. There was unwitting racism from the insensitive and racist stereotypical behaviour of officers, specifically that there had been a fight and a failing to understand that Stephen’s friend Duwayne Brooks had himself been a victim of this crime. Some officers simply refused to believe the murder was purely a racist murder. Stephen’s death was simply and solely and unequivocally motivated by racism. In the words of the inquiry:

‘… it was the deepest tragedy for his family and was an affront to society and especially to the local black community of Greenwich.’

The inquiry said there had to be a fundamental shift and only when the police show movement could they expect a response from minority ethnic communities. The Metropolitan Police had to pay damages to the Lawrence family and they had to change. The law too had to evolve. Three of the suspected killers had been acquitted and therefore could never face trial again. The inquiry felt this needed to be addressed and the legal process began so that acquittals for very serious crimes could be overturned if there was new and compelling evidence.

Doreen Lawrence at the 2012 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards with solicitor Imran Khan and barrister Michael Mansfield QC on the right

Thirteen years after Stephen was murdered another police investigation began, this time under DCI Driscoll. He volunteered for the case. It was considered a poisoned chalice by the Metropolitan Police but he wanted to take the case on and after cataloguing every piece of information properly, his team looked at it all with fresh eyes. He decided this wasn’t the brief attack of no more than 15 to20 seconds the police had initially decided and it could have lasted anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute. He insisted on new forensic examinations by a completely new forensic company. Apparently, the new forensic evidence cost £3 million but it did bear results.

Fibres from Stephen Lawrence were found on the clothing of two of the original suspects. It was only then that DCI Driscoll chose to meet with Doreen and Neville Lawrence and has since held the trust of the grieving mother who a few years later spoke of her upset when he was forced to retire.

In 2012 two men, including one already acquitted of Steven’s murder were tried and convicted. They were given life sentences for murder. They were twoof the fournamed individuals in the anonymous letter left on the telephone kiosk shortly after Stephen died. But there was still more to come for the Lawrence family. In 2014 another public inquiry found that the Metropolitan police had used members of a special demonstration squad to go undercover and gather information from the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign about his family during the time of the public inquiry.




In 1993 when Stephen died, the Lawrence’s were an ordinary family but like all ordinary families each had their own extraordinary qualities. Doreen Lawrence’s statement to the Macpherson inquiry details their life that the public didn’t focus on. Stephen was her eldest child, for the first 18 months of his life she stayed at home with him before taking on part-time work and before his younger siblings were born.

Sport and education were Stephen’s main interests. It was well known that his ambition was to become an architect and his mother said that in life he was always drawing, he would create birthday cards, Christmas cards and would make his own Mother’s Day card for her. Racism wasn’t something he dwelled on. When he died his daily life was studying for his A levels and working part-time in McDonalds.

Doreen’s statement is peppered with memories of Stephen, capturing his character, for example Stephen wanting a watch for his sixth birthday and Doreen telling him he could only have a watch when he could tell the time and so he got what he wanted, because he taught himself. The teenager, like many, was determined to have his freedom and the negotiations for the time he had to come home in the evenings which was agreed as 10.30pm.

When her children were young, Doreen Lawrence worked as a special needs helper in a school. She had been encouraged by the teachers she worked with to train as one herself and so she returned to education. The last time she saw her son alive was as she was leaving for a field trip as part of her degree. She left on a Tuesday and returned late on Thursday evening, after checking on her two other children, she ate dinner and watched television all the time wishing Stephen would hurry up and get home so she could go to bed because she was tired. She didn’t want to go until she knew he was home.

Stephen was keen to get home too on the night he was murdered. He and his friend Duwayne Brooks were at Well Hall Road bus stop. Stephen walked up the road to see if a bus was coming and as Duwayne called out to see if he saw the bus, the group of killers engulfed him. It was a random attack. The waste of him, is painful to read. Talent and decency were snuffed out with a senseless racist murder. And if this wasn’t terrible enough it became more appalling that the gang of killers were not quickly caught because of a catalogue of errors by the team investigating the murder and the ugly truth that in 1993 the Metropolitan police were ill equipped to investigate a racist murder of a black boy.

Doreen Lawrence eventually received much recognition for her fight for justice for her son. She is a well-known justice campaigner, has worked with the Home Office and her family created the Stephen Lawrence Trust, a legacy for her son that has enabled 25 of the young students they have worked with to qualify as architects. As recognition for her work, six years ago, Doreen was made a Baroness and sits in the House of Lords. Last year, she gave her last television interview about her son’s death, she said she didn’t want to speak about it anymore. She said that her focus was her children, to protect them and that when her son lost his voice because he was murdered, she became his voice.

Mother’s Day is never easy for any mother who will miss a card, perhaps even a handmade one. The ability to function after loss is hard and yet Doreen Lawrence found strength to fight for fairness, to hold the criminal justice system to account for its failings and helped change it for the benefit of others. There is much still to do 20 years after the McPherson inquiry but everything Stephen’s mother has done was to give him a voice in the system and to hold it to account for how they failed him.

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