Covert footage shows Stephen Lawrence murder suspects in 1994
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Lawrence was 18 years old when he was stabbed nine times in an unprovoked attack in south-east London. He had been waiting in a bus stop with his friend, Duwayne Brooks, who was also attacked but managed to escape. A gang of white youths fled the scene and would not face justice for 20 years.
Tonight, his family’s struggle in the aftermath of police failures and subsequent racial abuse is fictionalised in the second of ITV’s three-part series, ‘Stephen’.
A catalogue of errors followed Lawrence’s case.
In the days following his murder, several people came forward to the police to name a local gang in connection with the crime.
The suspects were Gary Dobson, brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Luke Knight and David Norris – all men having been linked with previous knife attacks and racist incidents in the area.
Between May 7 and June 3, all five were arrested by police.
Neil Acourt and Luke Knight were charged with murder on May 13 and June 23 respectively after being identified by Brooks.
However, on July 29, 1993, the CPS said that Brook’s ID evidence was insufficient, and the prosecution was dropped.
A turbulent legal challenge ensued.
By 2010, many members of the gang were already in jail for crimes unrelated to Stephen.
Following the discovery of new forensic evidence, the case was reopened and unseen footage was presented to the court.
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It showed video of four of the five suspects in the murder trial in Dobson’s flat in Eltham, south-east London, regularly bursting into torrents of racial abuse.
It also showed the youths brandishing a variety of long-bladed knives.
Chillingly, Neil Acourt is seen acting out the same “over-arm bowling” stabbing movement used to inflict one of the wounds of Stephen.
The surveillance operation was mounted on the orders of former detective superintendent William Mellish, who took over as head of the murder investigation in June 1994.
The camera was concealed in an electrical plug in the living room, and captured 80 minutes of film over a two-week period in 1994 – 20 months after Stephen was killed.
It was never shown to a jury at the time.
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In one scene, Neil Acourt strokes the blade of a large knife as he sits in an armchair watching TV.
He demonstrates a cutting action to Knight, instructing him: “Put it on something – right, and just dig straight in deep, watch.”
The men were also heard talking about “skinning” black people, as well as setting black people alight, torturing them and cutting them up.
In late 1994, Stephen’s parents Doreen and Neville launched a private prosecution against Neil Acourt, Knight and Dobson, but in April 1996 the murder trial against the trio collapsed.
A year later, in 1997, and almost four years after the murder, the five suspects appeared at the inquest into Lawrence’s death and refused to answer questions.
Later that year, the MacPherson inquiry was launched by the Home Secretary Jack Straw, investigating both the killing and the police response.
It was released in 1999 and contained 350 pages of damning report, concluding that the investigation had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership.”
Of its 70 recommendations, mostly aimed at improving police attitudes to racism, 67 led quickly to changes in working practices or the law.
Vitally, it suggested that the “double jeopardy” law, which prevented defendants being tried again on the same charges, should be abolished.
This came into practice in 2005 and helped the future case.
The new forensic evidence included a blood spokesman on Dobson’s jacket and hairs found in Norris’s bedroom, both of which were identified as Stephen’s.
Their trial began at the Old Bailey in November 2011, and after six weeks in court, Dobson and Norris were found guilty of murder in January 2012.
Both men received life sentences.
‘Stephen’ airs tonight on ITV One at 9pm.
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