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Stephen Lawrence

Crime Files
Stephen Lawrence
Image: James Boardman Archive / Alamy Stock Photo | Left: Background: | Right: Crime + Investigation

It took nearly 19 years of constant campaigning, two failed prosecutions, and tens of millions of pounds to convict just two of Stephen Lawrence's killers.

What will it take to jail the rest?


“It was great having a big brother. No-one messed with me. Stephen was tall and cool and had lots of friends.”Stuart Lawrence, younger brother of Stephen


In April 1993, Stephen was an 18 year old, ready to start training for his dream job as an architect. He’d done work experience and was promised a job if he passed his A-levels. He was doing these at Blackheath Bluecoat School and knew through football, fellow pupil, and now famous Manchester United and England soccer star, Rio Ferdinand.Stephen was a popular and promising student and an above average athlete and teachers chose him to show new pupils around. In his mid teens, he had a little work wobble but soon returned to studying hard.He earned money by designing and selling T-shirts and was a part time worker at McDonalds.He occasionally argued with his younger brother, most recently when the latter had out of curiosity dismantled Stephen’s walkman to see how it worked. But he always forgave him in the end.


Stephen’s father was born in Jamaica. It was Neville that gave Stephen the dream of being an architect. Neville had been too poor to pursue such a profession and instead, had become an upholsterer. Neville hoped that what was denied to him, would be possible for Stephen.But his marriage to Doreen doesn’t survive Stephen’s death. They have been happily married for nearly 30 years when they’re informed in a hospital that their son is dead. Neville says they never touched from that moment on.


Neville and Doreen emigrate separately from Jamaica in the 60s, but soon meet up in London and when they start a family in the 70s, she makes sure they are all regular attendees at their local Methodist Church.She was doubly determined when it came to bringing to justice those who had destroyed her family. Many believe that without her, it’s unlikely anyone would ever have been convicted.


Gary is born to Pauline and Stephen Dobson in June 1975, in the same maternity ward as Stephen. The Dobson family will later be described as a ‘loving’ and ‘respectable, white, working-class family’. Like Stephen, Gary is a first born son.By his mid teens, Gary is a good looking, confident young ‘lady’s’ man. At college, he meets the Acourt brothers. Like them, he lives on the Brook estate, ‘a virtual no-go area for non-whites’.Gary is 17, and still living with his parents, when the police come to arrest him.


David’s father is a drug smuggler, and in 1993, is on the run. But even absent, his influence means few cross his son’s path.David lives with his mother, but he’s the only one of the group who doesn’t live in or around the Brook Estate. He’s meets them, aged 14, after playing football with Jamie Acourt.David and Gary Dobson form part of a violent gang that intimidates locals, often with knives.He’s 16, and has left school, but is still living with his mother at the time of the murder.


Born in 1975, he was in the same year as Gary Dobson at college. In 2001, he is convicted of possessing an offensive weapon. In 2002, he and Norris are jailed for 18 months for a racist attack on off-duty detective.He has always denied any involvement in the killing.


Jamie was born in 1976, in Southwark, South London. He’s in the year below his brother Neil, but is expelled at 14 for fighting.He has always denied any involvement in the killing.


Luke was born in 1976, also in Southwark, South London. He went to school with Jamie, but left a few weeks before the murder.He has always denied any involvement in the killing.


Duwayne was the friend with Stephen the night he was murdered. They met when they were 11 at their first day at Blackheath Bluecoat School. They remained best friends even when Duwayne went to study engineering at another college, and they would still meet up at lunchtime and after school. He did so on the day Stephen was killed.After the murder, Duwayne suffered from post traumatic stress, preventing him from identifying the killers. A few days after the murder, he was arrested for his involvement in a scuffle during a race march on the British National Party headquarters.

His insistence that the motive for the murder was racism leads to repeated harassment and violent arrests. (At that time, the police were more likely to believe that the stabbing was a result of a black kid being discovered during a burglary.)

In 2006, the Metropolitan Police paid him £100,000 in compensation after reviewing how officers handled his complaints following the murder.In 2009, he won a seat as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lewisham.

The Arrests

“I would blow their two arms and legs off and say ‘go on, you can swim home now’.”

David Norris, covertly recorded in 1994, on what he’d like to do to black people


On 7 May, 1993, nearly two weeks after the murder, the police finally raid the prime suspects’ homes. During this period, it’s possible that vital forensic evidence is destroyed.

The reason for the delay is that Detective Superintendent Brian Weeden is ignorant of a ’basic tenet of criminal law’ namely that he could arrest simply on reasonable suspicion. (The Detective later contradicts his own assessment of this at a later inquiry).

When police arrest Dobson, they find a CS gas canister in a drawer beneath his bed. At the Acourts’ home, police find a knife behind a TV set and under a settee, a sword. But these don’t provide evidence that either brother is involved. Both Neil and Jamie are taken in for questioning. Norris isn’t home when the police come. He turns up with his lawyer three days later, and is arrested. On 3 June, Knight is also arrested.

Dobson lies to the police in the mistaken belief it will keep Norris’s name from them. (That same year, he’s convicted of theft...he’s convicted again for it in 2000) Dobson’s parents support his alibi that he was at home at the time of the murder. (Gary alleges he did pop out at 11:30pm, but only to see the Acourt brothers, but this was only so he could borrow a Bob Marley CD; an unusual choice of music for a racist.)Dobson is the only one of the five to provide an alibi.But only Neil Acourt and Luke Knight are charged. Neither are convicted.


By September 2010, Norris is now an unmarried father of five, and living in a bedsit, when he is arrested again. (Norris’s first wife has left him because of the unwanted attention, by both the public and press.)

He’s previously been arrested for racially abusing an off duty police officer, along with Neil Acourt, and just months after Norris’s release from jail for this offence, he’s sentenced to 13 months for a pub burglary and handling a stolen Range Rover. It also transpires that he stood trial for attempted murder in a stabbing committed a month before Stephen was killed. He was found not guilty.But during his time in jail awaiting trial for Stephen’s murder, he becomes the target of violence. While on remand in Belmarsh prison, he’s badly beaten several times. During one attack, his nose is broken, he loses a number of teeth and suffers four broken ribs.

Dobson is slightly easier to arrest as on 9 July 2010, as he’s already in prison. He started a five year jail sentence for supplying a Class B drug after being caught during a sting by the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The Court of Appeal decides there’s enough new and substantial evidence to allow Dobson’s acquittal to be quashed. Dobson and Norris are now both ready to be tried for the murder of Stephen.

The Investigation

“If the police had done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court.”

Doreen Lawrence, 2012

The police who arrive at the scene don’t give Stephen First-Aid. They won’t ask Duwayne to give an efit (a computer generated description of the attackers) for 11 days. Over 20 people name the suspects within 48 hours of the killing, and one walks into a police station to name them. The suspect names are also left on notes, one tucked under a police windscreen wiper. Those named include Gary Dobson, 17, David Norris, 16, Luke Knight, 16 and brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, aged 17 and 16 respectively. Operation Fishpool is launched. But nearly two weeks pass before three of the suspects are arrested.It’s now become standard to believe the original investigation was so riddled with errors because of endemic police racism and individual incompetence. There were, however, several obstacles in their way, for example, the influence of David Norris’ father, Clifford.He was a notorious drug smuggler, and he may have been on the run from the police at the time of the murder, but his presence was still felt around the Brook estate.

“Police officers...believed that the influence or fear of Clifford Norris infected the investigation of the murder, in that potential young witnesses...held back because they knew of Clifford Norris’ existence and close interest in his son’s welfare.’ (The Macpherson Report)

And not all the police were racist. When Stephen’s younger brother Stuart cycled out to see where his brother was, he came across the cordoned off murder scene. Two policemen, wanting to shield him from what had happened, put his bike in the boot of their car, and drove him home.

But over the next 17 years, there’ll be 16 arrests, over 800 house calls and nearly 1,400 statements taken, with no result. But amidst this activity, it’s the taking of two of the suspects’ clothes as evidence that will eventually lead to convictions.In ID parades, Duwayne Brooks identifies Neil Acourt and Luke Knight as being part of the gang responsible for the murder. They’re charged and both deny the charges.And in July 1993, the Crown Prosecution Service drops the case. Forensics find nothing and the key witness, Duwayne, is considered unreliable. Investigating officers’ relationship with him is, by his own admission, ‘poor’. (His relationship with the Lawrence family also breaks down at this point as well). A senior officer reviews the investigation, or lack of it, but concludes it’s being ‘correctly pursued’.In late 1994, the police place undercover cameras in Dobson’s flat. The recordings of his racist rants will later help seal his fate. (The only chief suspect not recorded is Jamie Acourt as he’s in custody over other unrelated matters).

In 1997, the Police Watchdog effectively investigates the police investigation. After nine months, it concludes there were "significant weaknesses, omissions and lost opportunities". The head of the Met Police apologises to the Lawrence family the next year, but refuses to resign.

In February 1999, Operation Athena Tower launches. A top detective, John Grieve is given free rein to get convictions. His surveillance operation is described as ‘pure James Bond’. An undercover officer purchases a property and moves in nearby to befriend Dobson. The police even bug the golf trolleys of the suspects when they holiday in Scotland. But in May 2004, the Crown Prosecution Service announces there’s insufficient evidence to prosecute murder charges.

Then in 2006, police launch a cold case four year review, staffed by 32 officers at a cost of nearly £8m. Roughly half of that is spent on the scientific re-examination of the evidence. Scientists working at LGC Forensics find clothing fibres and hair from the Stephen on the clothes of Dobson and Norris. And crucially, they go over the jacket magnifying it 40 times. They find a microscopic (0.5mm x 0.25mm) speck of his blood on Dobson’s jacket. It’s the start of a four year cold case review. A tiny drop of Stephen’s blood was found on a jacket belonging to Dobson. Two strands of his hair were found on jeans belonging to Norris.New charges are brought against Dobson and Norris.

The Crime

“It was like a lynching from the days of slavery.” Duwayne Brooks, survivor of the attackIt’s 22 April 1993.

The Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, is struggling to lead the country out of recession. The Bluebells, ‘Young at Heart’ is No.1 in the charts and Madonna’s ‘Body of Evidence’ is the most watched film at the cinema. But that’s only part of the world Stephen lived in. He lives in South East London, very close to Eltham. Eltham is a ‘notorious white enclave’. Ethnic minorities account for just six per cent of its population. The HQ of the British National Party is close by. Racism is simply everywhere.

For Stephen that day, it’s the usual routine, of school, a bit of window shopping, and then meeting up with his best mate, Duwayne. The two go to a relative’s house and play video games until late. At around 10:20pm, Stephen and his friend Duwayne go to catch a bus home. The quickest route back means waiting at a bus stop on Well Hall Road, Eltham.

Stephen goes to the end of the road to see if the bus is coming. A group of white youths approach. Gary Dobson is 17, his friend, David Norris is just 16. They are with at least three, possibly more, other white youths. Their meeting with Stephen and Duwayne is a chance encounter.

When Duwayne shouts to ask Stephen if he could see the bus, one of the gang of white youth yells back, ‘what, what n****r?’. They surround Stephen, and unprovoked, attack as one. Their targets, Stephen and Duwayne, are random. But their intended violence against their skin is premeditated. Duwayne manages to make a run for it. Bizarrely, Stephen, one of the fastest sprinters at his school, doesn’t.

In a hate filled ten seconds, two stab wounds are delivered. One of the stab wounds penetrates five inches into his flesh. Both sever arteries. The gang move as one in the frenzy, and move off together.

Critically injured, Stephen now tries to run towards to Duwayne. Blood is pouring from both shoulders and drenching his clothes.After 120m, he collapses. At 10:30pm, everything that Stephen is, and hoped to be, ends.


13 September 1974 Stephen Lawrence is born in Greenwich District Hospital, SE London.

16 June 1975 Gary Dobson is born, also at Greenwich Hospital.10:30pm 22 April

1993 Stephen Lawrence is murdered in Well Hall Road, Eltham, South East London.

23 April 1993 A letter is left in a telephone box naming the suspects. Police surveillance begins on their homes four days later.

6 May 1993 The Lawrence family meet Nelson Mandela after publicly complaining at the lack of police progress.

7 May 1993 Three suspects are arrested.

13 May 1993 Neil Acourt is charged with murder. He denies the charges.

23 June 1993 Luke Knight is charged with murder. He denies the charges.

29 July 1993 The Crown Prosecution Service drops the case against both murder suspects.

September 1994 The Lawrence parents launch private prosecution against Dobson, Knight and Acourt. All three deny the charges.

December 1994 Police place a covert camera in Dobson’s flat

April 1996 The Old Bailey judge rules Duwayne Brooks’ evidence inadmissible. The three are acquitted.

13 February 1997 The inquest ends with the jury decision that Stephen was unlawfully killed by white youths.

14 February 1997 The ‘Daily Mail’ front page states ‘Murderers’ above photos of the five suspects, provocatively taunting them with the strap-line, ‘The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.’

15 February 1997 The police covert recordings of the suspects involved in racist language and using a knife are revealed.

31 July 1997 Home Secretary Jack Straw orders a judicial inquiry headed by retired High Court Judge, William Macpherson

December 1997 The Police Complaints Authority finds conclusive evidence of errors by police detectivesSeptember

1998 Macpherson brands the Met Police institutionally racist.

1998 David Norris is acquitted of trying to murder another man.

February 1999 The Macpherson report recommends 70 changes to policing. Operation Athena Tower launches. At its peak, 120 officers will be working on the four year operation. One undercover officer even buys a house near to Dobson to help infiltrate the suspects.

April 1999 Martin Bashir interviews Dobson for ITV’s ‘Tonight’ show. Dobson presents the five as ‘loveable rogues’ but fails to convince many viewers of their innocence.

July 1999 The only detective facing disciplinary charges over the flawed original murder investigation is effectively cleared.

October 2000 The Lawrence family accept £320,000 compensation from the police.

14 February 2001?? Neil Acourt , now 27, is convicted of possession of an offensive weapon.

11 May 2001 Neil Acourt drives David Norris, now 25, as the latter chucks a drink at an off duty detective and shouts racial abuse. Acourt is said to drive the car at the detective.

6 September 2002 Norris and Neil Acourt serve 12 months for racially abusing the off duty detective.

2003 Duwayne Brooks publishes his book, ‘Steve and Me’.5

May 2004 The Director of Public Prosecutions rules that after five years re-investigation, there’s insufficient evidence to charge anyone with the murder.

April 2005 The 800 year old ‘Double Jeopardy’ law is abolished.

2006 Police re-examine forensic exhibits in the case using a company called LGC. The company has previously solved the killings of schoolboy Damilola Taylor and mother Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common.

2010 Dobson is filmed by police dropping off £350,000 of cannabis. He pleads guilty and on 9 July, is sentenced to five years.

September 2010 Norris is arrested. Both he and Dobson are charged with the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

April 2011 Norris was never tried but Dobson’s original acquittal is quashed. Both are now ready to stand trial for murder of Stephen.

14 November 2011 The trial of Dobson and Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence begins at the Old Bailey.

14:39 3 January 2012 After 50 days, Dobson and Norris are found guilty4 January 2012 David Norris, 35, is jailed for a minimum of 14 years and three months Gary Dobson, 36, jailed for 15 years and two months

5 January 2012 Scotland Yard denies it’s planning to disband the dedicated team of detectives investigating the Lawrence murder. It’s emerged detectives in the case were given new information during the trial. The Attorney General also begins reviewing whether the sentences can be increased.Neil and Jamie Acourt and Luke Knight maintain they were never involved in the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

"The other people involved in the murder of Stephen Lawrence should not rest easy in their beds". Scotland Yard Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, 2012

23 August 2012 Dobson and Norris are refused leave to appeal

The Trials

An inquest begins in December 1992, but it’s suspended when the family’s barrister says there’s ‘dramatic’ new evidence. In September 1994, lawyers representing the Lawrence’s persuade them there’s enough evidence to launch a private prosecution (rather than a police lead, state prosecuted one).

But by 1996, Duwayne Brooks, the key witness, is tired and nervous. He’s battered by both barristers. He contradicts some of his own statements. Because of doubts over his testimony, Gary Dobson, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight are acquitted before the trial even opens. The three have always denied the charges. The case collapses. And worse, because of ‘Double Jeopardy’ where no suspect can be tried for the same crime twice, they can never face trial again.

The inquest resumes, but the five suspects refuse to answer any questions citing their legal right to silence. In February 1997, the coroner’s jury takes just 30 minutes to unanimously decide Stephen was unlawfully killed in an unprovoked racist attack by white youths.

The next day, the Daily Mail names the five men it says killed Stephen and dares them to sue.On the 24 March 1998, the Macpherson inquiry begins and the five suspects are told to give evidence or face prosecution. In June, the five are pelted with eggs, bottles, bricks and stones. They spit and throw punches in retaliation. But apart from various trials by media, the five are free men.

“Some justice at last” Tweet by Duwayne Brooks, survivor of the attack, 2012


Very few expected to ever see Dobson and Norris stand trial, but they did, in November 2011, at the Old Bailey.

This time, both forensics and witnesses come together. Everything from the angle the knife was plunged into Stephen’s chest to the tiny bloodspot is presented clinically. And despite his father dying the night before, Duwayne Brooks enters the witness box to describe to the jury the night of the murder. He starts composed. But as he recounts the moment he noticed that Stephen was drenched in blood, he breaks down and cries for nearly a minute. The prosecuting QC attempted to help him but Mr Brooks slaps his hand down and insists he will bear witness.

The prosecution allege that the only way for the blood to have got that far into Dobson’s jacket, was that it soaked in as Stephen bled i.e. it could not have been the result of cross contamination by investigators, which the defence alleges.

The defence is further destroyed by surveillance videos of the men bragging about committing violence against ‘blacks’ and ‘Pakis’. Norris, now 35, says he’s ‘ashamed’ of his language and Dobson, now 36, says he too is ‘disgusted and embarrassed’.

The jury takes two and a half days to reach a unanimous verdict. Mrs Lawrence gives the ‘briefest of smiles’ as Mr Lawrence wipes a tear from his eye. As Dobson and Norris weren’t adults at the time of their crime, their minimum tariff is 12 rather than the adult one of 25-30 years. But the judge takes into account that they both knew a knife might be used, and their crime was racist.

Norris’s QC offers no mitigation, maintaining he was never there. His sentence is a minimum term of 14 years and Gary Dobson is 15 years. Applause starts up in the gallery. As Dobson is taken down, he says to the jury, ‘You have just condemned an innocent man.’ Some take this to mean he didn’t administer the killing strike and that another was responsible.Interviewed outside the court, Stephen’s mother, Doreen, says the verdict isn’t a cause for celebration.“How can I celebrate? How can I celebrate when my son lies buried, when I cannot see him or speak to him? When I will not see him grow up or go to university, or get married or have children. These verdicts will not bring my son back.”But others outside the court, reacted with chants of ‘Two Down. Three To Go.’The Metropolitan Police, however, believe there are still several more suspects remaining.It’s hoped that Dobson, the ‘weak link’, will provide the missing evidence in return for a reduced sentence.

The Aftermath


The Macpherson inquiry was held at the Elephant and Castle in South London. Even its setting, in one of the most mixed inner city communities of London, demonstrated its desire to reflect the reality of modern Britain.In February 1999, the Macpherson report was published. It famously labelled the Metropolitan Police ‘institutionally racist.’ There were 70 recommendations; many aimed at improving police attitudes to racism. And everything, from recruitment, to training, through to accountability, changes. So total is the overhaul, that now, The Metropolitan Police advises the police of other countries on the best methods of ‘colour blind’ policing practice. And along with these dramatic changes there were detailed ones too. For example, the reason that every police officer can now administer First Aid is because of the Macpherson recommendations. Officers failed to do so when they found Stephen. There are legislative recommendations as well, including strengthening the Race Relations Act to dissuade against discrimination, the criminalisation of racist remarks made in private, and the ending of ‘Double Jeopardy’ so that the same person could be tried again for a crime of which they’d been acquitted.


The Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 placed a new duty on public bodies to eliminate discrimination and promote racial equality.In 2005, the double jeopardy rule was abolished. Originally intended to protect the individual from repeated investigation by the superior power of the state, breakthroughs in science and forensics meant new evidence was constantly becoming available. And now, if such evidence is found later, an application for retrial can be made.


The conviction of Dobson and Norris seems to confirm the Lawrence murder as a watershed moment in British history. Before Lawrence, overt racism was not always criticised. Now, in both professional and social circles, it is simply unacceptable, and often illegal.

“For the first time the British public saw parents, a family, whose grief was so patent and whose dignity was so clear, that everybody could identify with them. White Britain realised that, actually, black Britain and black Britons aren’t really that different. "

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality & Human Rights Council

And Stephen probably wouldn’t recognise the area in which he grew up. His local council drew up an action plan after his death and the number of ethnic minorities has gone up five-fold. There are even black and Asian families now living on the Brook estate. But many, including the Lawrence family, believe much more still has to be done.


Big brother Stephen is still greatly missed by his younger siblings, Stuart, and Georgina. Stephen’s mother wouldn’t let her son be buried in Britain. Instead, he was laid to rest in Jamaica. Doreen believes that if Stephen’s grave was in his home country, it would become a target for racist desecration.

“I don’t think the country deserves to have his body there anyway because they took his life.”

Doreen Lawrence