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'The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence'?
BBC1, 26 July 2006

Lee Jones
9 August 2006

The title of last month's much-acclaimed BBC documentary on the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence - The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence - leaves the viewer in doubt as to its tone and approach. The gang of four men repeatedly tried and acquitted in both criminal and civil courts are again subject to a barrage of innuendo and accusations barely above the level of the Daily Mail, which openly accused the four and dared them to sue for libel (originally on 14 February 1997). But far from bettering our understanding of the case or offering much that is new, investigative reporter Mark Daly mainly reiterates existing prejudice and plumbs the depths of contemporary disdain for habeas corpus, the right to silence, and the presumption of innocence.

The real story of the documentary should be the complete failure of three police investigations, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Lawrences' legal team to assemble sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. The most important failure came directly after the murder, when police took over two weeks to act on numerous anonymous tip-offs about the identity of the killers, and even allowed one suspect to dispose of a bulging refuse sack without even investigating the contents. This is brushed over quickly - probably because, like most of the content of the documentary, we already knew of this incompetence thanks to the McPherson inquiry - but it is surely crucial. The failure to gather any forensic evidence against the four men doomed any trial to failure by forcing the prosecution to rely on circumstantial evidence and an unstable eyewitness.

But the failures continued: a second investigation, involving 13 secret observation posts and thousands of police man hours, yielded nothing. 'The truth is,' the operation's commanding officer reported, 'they led a very boring life' rather than being out 'bulglaring or robbing'. 'The truth is, we failed, we didn't get the evidence.' Imran Khan, commenting on the private prosecution brought by the Lawrences, at which the eyewitness was completely discredited in the witness box, allegedly because of 'post-traumatic stress disorder', admitted that this time, the legal team 'had failed'. And a third and final police investigation under Superintendent John Grieves, despite interviewing 400 witnesses over three years, also failed to turn up any real evidence.

But, in the words of one local woman interviewed, it was 'obviously them' and 'everyone knew it. People couldn't understand why there was no conviction'. But rather than explaining this as product of a catalogue of official errors flowing from that first disaster, the documentary suggests that this bizarre outcome can only be the result of some sort of conspiracy. It does this in two ways: first, it establishes the guilt of the four men by making insinuations and accusations about their personal lives; and second, it tries to tie together a string of corruption allegations into a remarkably weak conspiracy theory.

The first technique is interesting because it illustrates how degraded our respect is for traditional processes of justice has become. The huge numbers of tip-offs are listed as though the sheer weight of suspicion should be sufficient to lock these men away - no mention of the good reasons for the traditional inadmissibility of hearsay evidence, undermined most recently by the 2003 Criminal Justice Act and of course anti-terrorism legislation. Audio recordings of the men saying 'no comment' is played and analysed as 'suspicious' by the presenter - surely no 16-year-old would say 'no comment' unless they were guilty? The traditional right to silence - undermined by the 1994 Criminal and Justice Act and confirmed in the present government's 1997 Police Act - certainly doesn't get a look in. Their very refusal to talk condemns them by implication. Video footage of the men gathered in the second investigation shows them making violent and racist remarks. According to Imran Khan, this meant 'these must be the right people, the evidence must be out there' - it never was, and they never mentioned the murder, but never mind. And quite what right the documentary had to show that footage - given that no convictions were ever secured as a result of it - is unclear.

The men are accused of stabbing four other people, too. Never mind that no successful prosecution was ever brought - lingering shots of scars are apparently sufficient to condemn them in the eyes of the BBC. A previously silent victim comes forward to tell Mark Daly that he will testify against the men who stabbed him: great - but tell the Crown Prosecution Service, not the BBC. Video footage of the four men leaving the McPherson inquiry is shown to illustrate the remarks of one advisor to the inquiry, who says the men seemed calm and rational inside but 'showed what they really were' once outside. The footage shows them snarling and shouting, but no comment is made to explain why this might be so - meaning viewers might miss the fact that they were being bombarded by missiles as they left the inquiry, with the police completely failing to protect them from attack. I'd snarl if someone threw stones at me, too.

Having established the 'obvious' guilt of these men through insinuation, accusation and attacks, a fairly feeble conspiracy theory threads its way through the documentary in a vain attempt to explain why these people weren't convicted. The failure of the CPS to secure convictions in the other alleged stabbing cases becomes the gang's 'remarkable ability to escape conviction' and is explained by the alleged bribery of one juror by Clifford Norris, a father of one of the accused - itself investigated, and, surprise, surprise, never proven. The gang's failure to confess to the murder while being secretly taped in the second investigation means it is 'obvious that they were being schooled in anti-surveillance techniques'. The gang's footsteps are retraced in a desperate attempt to make the accounts of two witnesses who say them on separate streets that night, producing a totally implausible itinerary that has them first fleeing to a friend's house, then, 15 minutes later, running in the opposite direction to their eventual destination, and having two of them peel off when almost home to re-visit the crime scene. And the grand conspiracy as a whole rests on the one truly novel revelation the documentary makes (yet another unproven allegation), this time that Detective Sergeant John Davidson, who led the initial investigation, is a 'bent cop' who took bribes from Clifford Norris. The allegation comes from a policeman already convicted of corruption, whose testimony at the time of his own trial brought down four other officers. However, Detective Superintendent John Yates, the Metropolitan Police's chief investigator on the initial corruption charges, states that this particular allegation was never made at the time, but seems to have been invented later. No, says the convicted crooked cop - the information was 'suppressed' to 'protect the Met'.

What a tangled web he weaves. Whether there is any substance to this last accusation will presumably be revealed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation that was immediately launched. But even if DS Davidson is proven to be corrupt, it is unlikely to bring us any closer to the evidence needed to convince a jury of 12 British citizens that the four men repeatedly accused in this documentary are guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt'. The fact is that the forensic evidence needed to prove their guilt was never found. The McPherson inquiry noted seven years ago that this was due to incompetence and 'institutional racism' on the part of the Metropolitan Police - we didn't need another documentary to tell us that. The idea that the occasional guilty party walking free is the price society pays to ensure no innocent man is deprived of their freedom is never even considered. All Mark Daly's insinuations and innuendos produce is another tabloid-style show trial, leaving the viewer at best baffled as to how the gang 'escaped conviction', at worst, seeing conspiracies everywhere, and probably further convinced of the need to 'rebalance' the justice system as Tony Blair recently put it, which will involve further assaults on civil liberties and the presumption of innocence.

Lee Jones studies international politics at Oxford.

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