February 19 2024
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Stephen Lawrence and double jeopardy

Stephen Lawrence and double jeopardy

Gary Dobson and David Norris were yesterday sentenced for their part in the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Mr Justice Treacy sentenced them on the basis that theirs was ‘a terrible and evil crime for no other reason than racial hatred’.

The Lawrence family spoke emotionally on the steps of The Old Bailey of their hope that their lives can move on and their wish that, despite the difficulties, the remainder of the killer gang could be brought to trial. In the lead-up to the sentencing of Gary Dobson and David Norris, commentators were fascinated by the long-term impact of the Lawrence case on the law. There are now specific offences for non-fatal racially aggravated offences and sentencing in murder is specifically ‘aggravated’ allowing for a greater penalty where the killing is racially-motivated.

Any teenage racist thug is warned by the current publicity that sentencing will be a great deal higher than it was for Norris and Dobson who were sentenced under the old law. Any incorrectly acquitted defendant can expect the investigation to continue.

Stephen Lawrence died at the hands of knife-wielding racist thugs who attacked him for no other reason than the colour of his skin.

It took nearly 19 years for guilty verdicts in relation to two of the group of killers. Blunders by the police in the original investigation meant that no identification evidence was available. Witnesses who no doubt had useful information refused to come forward. An Inquiry was able to identify prime suspects but there was no apparent proof.

Double jeopardy

It took a change in the law to allow for one defendant to be tried having been previously acquitted after a failed private prosecution. This is known as ‘double jeopardy’, which means that someone can be tried twice for the same crime. It is for the prosecution to seek to quash an acquittal and seek a retrial.

The change in the law to allow retrial after an acquittal was controversial as the law used to be that a “NOT GUILTY” verdict was final. However, modern law recognises that the categories of evidence are never closed.

After the Lawrence verdict on January 3rd 2011, one commentator wrote: ‘I don’t think this was a great day for British justice, the abandonment of double jeopardy rules will lead to political trials rather than justice with those deemed worthy brought again and again to court till the “right” verdict is reached.

Of course, this was the concern at the time but there are safeguards which should reassure that commentator and restrict the number of cases which are re-opened.

Firstly, a retrial in these circumstances can only be sought in certain very serious cases.  Secondly, it can only be sought in special circumstances. In 2009, the Court of Appeal said that it is not enough that the new evidence creates a case to answer. There has to be ‘new and compelling evidence of the kind which cannot be realistically be disputed that the exceptional step of quashing an acquittal will be justified’.

The Court of Appeal granted an application by the prosecution in 2011 to try Gary Dobson again saying that ‘jurisdiction… is concerned with the question whether there should be a retrial because the acquittal is transparently wrong and is damaging to the criminal justice system’.

In the end this was a circumstantial evidence case where a small amount of Stephen Lawrence’s blood was found in recent scientific re-testing of the defendant’s clothing after an advance in science which was not available at the time of the killing. Although the DNA evidence was crucial, it was not the only evidence. Also found in evidence bags and on clothes relating to Dobson and Norris was hair from Stephen Lawrence and fibres from his clothes. Add to this evidence that Dobson and Norris were knife-wielding racists and after many years there was sufficient evidence to convict them of murder.

Trial for Norris and retrial after acquittal for Dobson was possible on new and compelling scientific evidence. It follows that no such evidence is available at the moment in relation to other suspects. As to what evidence may be available in the future it is hard to speculate, so whilst the investigation remains open then those suspected will not necessarily rest easy. The police simply have to remember to cast the net as wide as is sensible on the available information to prevent further mistakes. It is always better to reach a proper verdict on the evidence once and, where possible, close to the time of the offence but retrial on acquittal is a legal (not a political) tool available where new evidence becomes available and to correct mistakes in very serious cases. Despite the reservations this new law has created, most agree that it was used to success in Stephen Lawrence’s case and one hopes that such a legacy is  some small comfort for his family.