Stephen Lawrence: The Murder That Should Have Changed A Nation

Author: Janett Walker

On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered as he waited for a bus with his friend Duwayne Brooks.


Picture Shows: Stephen Lawrence – (C) The Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE 


Stephen and Duwayne had spent the evening at Stephen’s uncle’s house playing video games and then went to take a bus home. They realised the bus they’d taken would get them home late, so they decided to switch and jump on a different one.

It was whilst waiting for the next bus that it all went wrong. Stephen walked to the corner to see if he could see the next bus approaching. Duwayne waited at the stop. When Duwayne spotted the group of white male youths across the street he instinctively knew they were in trouble and shouted to Stephen if he could see the bus yet. Before Stephen could reply the gang had jumped on him. They stabbed him twice, fatally piercing a lung and major blood vessels. The gang ran off and Duwayne began to run in the opposite direction, shouting for Stephen to run with him. Stephen, now rapidly bleeding, managed to run 120mtrs before collapsing. By the time Stephen was taken to hospital he had already bled to death. He was just 18. The pathologist later said it was a testament to his fitness to have been able to run that distance with a collapsed lung and bleeding from four major arteries.

In the days following, the police investigation was a complete botch up. The distinct lack of interest emanating from the Metropolitan police force led to vital clues being ignored, leads left unfollowed and important evidence being covered up. They’d made the assumption from the moment they received the call that Stephen had been murdered that as he was Black, he must have been part of a gang and it was his own fault. They simply didn’t care and decided to waste as little resource on his murder as possible.


Within three days of Stephen’s murder, prime suspects had been identified; Gary Dobson, brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Luke Knight and David Norris. As a result of the botched investigations and despite numerous residents having come forward within days to give the suspects names to the police, one anonymous note being left on a police car windscreen and another in a telephone box, both again naming the murderers, it took over two weeks for the police to make any arrests. This allowed the murderers to destroy the most vital of evidence, such as the clothes they were wearing at the time. They had literally gotten away with murder.

Finally, on 7 May 1993, Neil and Jamie Acourt and Gary Dobson were arrested. Three days later, David Norris turned himself in to police and was likewise arrested. Luke Knight was arrested on 3 June.

Neil Acourt and Luke Knight were charged with murder on 13 May and 23 June 1993 respectively, but the charges were dropped on 29 July 1993, the Crown Prosecution Service citing insufficient evidence.

In September 1994, the Lawrence family initiated a private prosecution against all five suspects. The family were not entitled to legal aid, so had to raise funds with the help of the community to pay for the analysis of forensic evidence and the cost of tracing and re-interviewing witnesses. The family were represented by solicitor Imran Khan and counsels Michael Mansfield QC, Martin Soorjoo and Margo Boye – all of whom worked for free (pro bono). The charges against Jamie Acourt and David Norris were dropped before the trial for lack of evidence. On 23 April 1996, the three remaining suspects were acquitted of murder by a jury at the Central Criminal Court, after the trial judge ruled that the identification evidence given by Duwayne Brooks was unreliable.

An inquest into Stephen’s death was held in early February 1997. The five suspects refused to answer any questions, claiming privilege against self-incrimination. At the conclusion, the jury returned a verdict after just 30 minutes deliberation of Unlawful Killing “in a completely unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”; this finding went beyond the bounds of the instructions directed by the Judge. On 14 February 1997, the Daily Mail newspaper labelled all five suspects “murderers”. The headline read:

None of the murderers ever sued the paper for defamation and strong public opinions rose against both them and the police who had handled the case.

In July 1997 an inquiry was ordered by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw, officially titled “The Inquiry Into The Matters Arising From The Death of Stephen Lawrence”, to identify matters related to the killing; this became known as the Macpherson Report (see below). Amongst its 70 recommendations was a proposal to abolish the double jeopardy rule. This rule meant that a person could not be tried for the same crime twice. Once they had been acquitted, even if fresh evidence came to light that might show they were indeed guilty, the matter was closed. Macpherson’s recommendation about the double jeopardy rule was made law in April 2005 (Criminal Justice Act 2003).

On 27 July 2006, the Daily Mail repeated its now famous “Murderers” front page. Meanwhile, just a month prior to this, the police had secretly begun a cold case review and confirmed in November of that same year that new scientific evidence was being investigated.

Gary Dobson and David Norris were arrested and charged with Stephen’s murder on 8 September 2010. David Norris was in prison at the time on drug dealing offences and had been one of the two who had been acquitted in the earlier trial. Due to the now abolished double jeopardy rule, he could be tried again. They were both found guilty of Stephen’s murder on 3 January 2012 and sentenced to life (with minimum terms of 15 years and 2 months for Dobson and 14 years and 3 months for Norris). Although a life sentence these days attracts a minimum of 30 years, because they had committed the murder prior to the new Criminal Justice Act 2003, the starting point for the minimum term was just 10 years. The Attorney General at the time was asked to review these terms later that month but he declined to refer the sentences to the Court of Appeal as his view was the terms given were within the appropriate range (between a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 years). Of the five White men who murdered Stephen, only Dobson and Norris have been convicted.

There were other investigations throughout the period of 1997 to 2012;

  • The Lawrence family registered a formal complaint to the Police Complaints Authority, which in 1999 exonerated the officers who had worked on the case of allegations of racism. The one officer ordered to face disciplinary charges was found guilty of just one of twelve charges but retired the next day, enabling his punishment to be a mere caution;
  • In July 2006 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate claims of corruption that may have helped hide Stephen’s murderers. These claims were subsequently stated as “unfounded”;
  • In December 2009 the IPCC investigators and Met police officers arrested one serving police officer and one former police officer on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice by withholding evidence from the original murder inquiry and the Macpherson inquiry. In March the following year the IPCC announced no further action would be taken against the two men;
  • On 23 June 2013 an undercover police officer revealed that whilst working as such within an anti-racist campaign group in the mid 1990s he was constantly pressured by superiors to smear the Lawrence family in the hope of putting an end to their campaigns for better investigations into Stephen’s murder. David Cameron ordered a police investigation. The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review 2014, which found officers had spied on the family back in 1993, prompted an inquiry into undercover policing with the then head of the Met Police vowing to restore trust in the Met as a result.




In 1998 a public inquiry was launched headed up by Sir William Macpherson to examine the original police investigation: Independent Report The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The report concluded that the police were institutionally racist.

Although it wasn’t the first time that the term ‘institutional racism’ had been used (it was coined in 1967 by the US Civil Rights activist, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation,  it sent ripples through government and those with power who clearly recognised (and feared) its use in everyday language and understanding and the impact this could potentially have on those holding on to the power whilst keeping Black and Brown people oppressed. In the wrong hands, institutional racism could be dangerous bringing together the common voice of all those held down by capitalist powerful structures. These days we’re more familiar with the term ‘systemic racism’ but both stem from the same concept. Macpherson defined institutional racism as

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Even today, 20 years later those powers remain at play, with the likes of the Sewell Report denying institutional racism as recently as two weeks ago and Cressida Dick saying the Met are no longer institutionally racist as recently as July 2020 – which she has since had to retract (November 2020). Here in Cumbria, when AWAZ a social justice and equality organisation based in Cumbria, invited the current Police & Crime Commissioner for Cumbria Peter McCall, to speak at an event in response to Black Lives Matter, much to the wrath of those attending, he denied its existence. Yet here we are with the death of Richard Okorogheye just last week and statistics (to name but a few) such as

– Young Black people have been hit hardest by unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic

Black Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded than all other children at primary, secondary and special educational needs schools

– Black people are disproportionality represented in the prison population

Black women are 4 times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth in the UK

Black people are six times more likely to be stopped in their vehicles than White people and four times more likely than White people to be stopped and searched in the street. 

-The Windrush scandal revealed that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were Black people from the ‘Windrush’ generation or their children, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.

The Macpherson Report was heralded as a watershed moment, prompting a national conversation around race relations which sadly continues to this day. Not only did it find institutional racism in the police force, it went as far to say that reform was required in the British Civil Service, local governments, the National Health Service, schools/education and the judicial system, to address issues of institutional racism.

Prior to Macpherson had been the 1981 Scarman Report which had been instigated by the Brixton and other uprisings of the time. Macpherson recommended that the findings of the earlier report which had been ignored should now be implemented. Those findings had included unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of ‘stop and search’ powers by the police against black people and recommended changes in training and law enforcement, and the recruitment of more ethnic minorities into the police force.

Since Macpherson there have been at least 13 reports or inquiries commissioned;

  • Each one, right up until the Sewell Report 3 weeks ago, made similar recommendations in relation to institutional or systemic racism.
  • Each one has failed to see any transformational change as a result.
  • Each time fundamental recommendations have been ignored by successive governments and instead further reports have been instigated

Why? Is it the plan to keep going until the report gives governments what they want to hear? Will we stop having reports now that we have the Sewell one?

Baroness Doreen Lawrence noted:

“We have had so many reports, and every time we have a report, they go back to the beginning again and keep repeating the same thing. I am not sure how many more lessons the Government need to learn. It is not just the Government of today but the Government of the Labour Party. How many more lessons do we all need to learn? The lessons are there already for us to implement. Until we start doing that, we will keep coming back in a year or two years repeating the same thing over and over again.” Black People, Racism and Human Rights November 2020


Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, during the short ceremony where she took her seat in the House of Lords.

This Thursday 22 April will mark the 28th Anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence. He was just 18 at the time and an A-Level student who dreamed of becoming an architect.

For decades Stephen Lawrence’s parents, in particular his mother Baroness Doreen Lawrence, have campaigned for justice. His enduring legacy lives on as a result.

1995 – a memorial plaque was set into the pavement at the spot where he was killed on Well Hall Road.

1997 –  The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust recently re-named Blueprint for All (as the Lawrence family are no longer associated with it) is a national educational charity committed to the advancement of social justice. The Trust provides educational and employability workshops and mentoring schemes. It also awards architectural and landscape bursaries. In 2008 the Trust, with architects RMJM, created the initiative Architecture for Everyone to help promote architecture and the creative industries to young people from ethnic minorities.

1998 – an annual architectural award, the Stephen Lawrence Prize, was established in Stephen’s memory.

1999 –  Nicolas Kent designed a documentary play based on the trial, called The Colour of Justice. It was staged at the Tricycle Theatre and was later filmed by the BBC. It was also performed at the Guildford School of Acting for the 20th anniversary of the murder.

2008 –  the Stephen Lawrence Centre, designed by architect David Adjaye, opened in Deptford, south-east London.[95]

2012 –  Doreen Lawrence received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th Pride of Britain Awards.

2013 –  Doreen Lawrence was elevated to the peerage as a Baroness on 6 September. She is formally styled Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, (ClarendonJamaica). The honour is rare for being designated after a location in a Commonwealth realm outside the United Kingdom. She sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer specialising in race and diversity.

2016 –  Baroness Doreen Lawrence was appointed as Chancellor of the ‘Stephen Lawrence Research Centre’ at De Montfort University, Leicester

2018 –  On 23 April at a memorial service to mark the 25th Anniversary of his death, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that “Stephen Lawrence Day” would be an annual national commemoration of his death on 22 April every year starting in 2019.

2020 –  During Black History Month in October the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation was launched and set up to be the ‘home of Stephen’s legacy’. Baroness Doreen Lawrence felt that with the events of last summer including the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as coronavirus killing more Black people, Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation was more needed than ever. The Foundation follows the “3 Cs” model – Classrooms, Community and Careers and hopes to inspire children and young people to dream.


22 April marks Stephen Lawrence Day, to coincide with his untimely death and to commemorate his life. This year will be its third since its inception. When Theresa May announced the new national day, she said Stephen’s family had “fought heroically to ensure their son’s life and death will never be forgotten”.

Baroness Doreen Lawrence made a statement that Stephen Lawrence Day would be “an opportunity for young people to use their voices and should be embedded in our education and wider system regardless of the government of the day”.

And later went on to say “I hope that the first National Stephen Lawrence Day will help to drive forward an important national conversation about how we can all build a fairer and more inclusive Britain. But more importantly, I want this day to inspire our country’s future generation into living their best life – in the same spirit as Stephen.”

You can get involved with the day in the following ways:


  1. Take some time out from your day on Thursday to remember Stephen;


  1. Create a piece of artwork around the subject of Stephen’s life and death; suggestions include writing poetry or designing posters;


  1. Commit to helping make change, via the Stephen Lawrence Foundation’s #challengeaccepted initiative and take these three challenges on the 22nd:

Do Good – a simple act of kindness to help others in your community;

Get Creative – express what living your best life looks like for you through your chosen artform;

Share The Learning – find out about Stephen’s story and share it.


  1. Like and share the Foundation’s content on your social media using the hashtags #legacyofchange and #becauseofstephen