THE unsolved murder case that first convinced British MPs to drop the double jeopardy rule and allow suspects to stand trial twice over the same offence will finally go back to court for a second trial.
In an historic moment for the British justice system and one of the nation’s most emotive unsolved crimes, the Court of Appeal announced last night that two men would stand trial for the killing 18 years ago of black youth Stephen Lawrence.
The failed first trial of three members of an alleged white racist gang led to an official inquiry that found Scotland Yard was institutionally racist, prompting deep changes in British law and in the treatment of ethnic minorities by police and other agencies.
One of the results was the dropping of the double jeopardy rule in 2005, which meant that suspects who had already been cleared of an offence could be put on trial again if significant new evidence emerged.
One of the two men who have been charged, Gary Dobson, stood trial with four others in a 1996 private prosecution brought by Lawrence’s family, but he was found not guilty.
The Court of Appeal decision, which could not be reported until last night because of media restrictions, said the second man to face trial would be David Norris, who has never been charged over the stabbing.
Lawrence, 18, and a friend suffered an unprovoked attack while standing at a bus stop in southeast London. Lawrence’s death brought race relations in Britain to crisis point.
The court revealed last night that Mr Dobson and Mr Norris were charged last September and since have been in prison, where they will remain until their November trial at the Old Bailey. The court’s judgment said the new evidence that justified the trial was traces of Lawrence’s blood found on Mr Dobson’s clothing by new forensic tests.
“The present application depends on the reliability of new scientific evidence which by reference to the grey bomber jacket (LH/5) and the multi-coloured cardigan (ASR/2) closely links Dobson with the fatal attack on Stephen Lawrence,” the ruling says.
“It does not and could not demonstrate Dobson wielded the knife which caused the fatal wound, but given the circumstances of the attack on Stephen Lawrence – that is, a group of youths in a violent enterprise converging on a young man, and attacking him as a group – it would be open to a jury to conclude that any one of those who participated in the attack was party to the killing and guilty of murder, or alternatively manslaughter (a verdict which would, if there had been sufficient evidence, also have been available at the first trial).
“If reliable, the new scientific evidence would place Dobson in very close proximity indeed to Stephen Lawrence at the moment of and in the immediate aftermath of the attack; proximity, moreover, for which no innocent explanation can be discerned.”
Dobson’s lawyer, Timothy Roberts QC, claimed the new forensics were unreliable because they “are likely to be the product of contamination over the years, that is, by contact with Stephen Lawrence’s blood and his clothing”.
The tests could not be trusted because of “outdated or incompetent storage or packaging or transporting arrangements”, he said.
Mr Roberts said his client should not be retried because “the huge wave of constant publicity over the years, directly identifying some of those suspected of the murder with involvement in the crime”, meant there could not be a fair trial.
The judgment said the murder was a “calamitous crime” and declared that Lawrence was “a young black man of great promise, targeted and killed by a group of white youths just because of the colour of his skin”.
Jocelyn Cockburn, a solicitor for Lawrence’s father, Neville, said he was “relieved and delighted by today’s decision”.