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Story Publication logo February 19, 2013

London Press Prints Its Own Verdict


High profile cases often sweat under the media's spotlight. In London, the 15-year focus on Lawrence...


"Murderers. The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us."

The Daily Mail's 1997 front page headline struck a chord with readers across London, naming five young men guilty of murdering Stephen Lawrence, a black teen, 15 years before a jury reached the same conclusion.

In 1993, 18-year-old Lawrence was stabbed to death by a group of white teenage boys while waiting for a bus in Eltham, a district in South London. Once it was reported that one of the suspects was heard yelling, "What? What, nigger?" at Lawrence prior to the attack, the murder was classified as a racially-motivated crime.

"I remember the day that The Mail splashed their pictures all over the front page with 'guilty' written on there," said Michelle Byrne, family service manager for Spurgeons Charity Visits Centre at Her Majesty's Prisons in London. "No one questioned it. . . . Everyone wanted this boy's killers to be found and for justice to be served."

Popular news publications latched onto the case, exposing private information and feeding racial tension across London. Gary Dobson, David Norris, Jamie Accourt, Neil Accourt and Luke Knight were all declared "not guilty" by a jury, yet The Mail argued the verdict in one of Britain's most public forums.

"The media grabbed hold of this case because . . . the Lawrences [were] banging the drum of racism," said David Turner, lead solicitor for Gary Dobson and senior legal assistant at Andrew Keenan and Company.

Within the first few months of the investigation, the Lawrence family questioned the objectivity of the Metropolitan Police Department, suggesting that the police did not sufficiently pursue leads, tips or witnesses in the critical weeks that followed the crime. In the 20 years since, the Lawrence family has fought relentlessly to ensure the criminal convictions of those responsible.

"I felt some small satisfaction when I saw the headline, knowing that unless they sued they would be tainted for the rest of their lives as killers," said Stephen Lawrence's mother, Doreen Lawrence, in her book, "And Still I Rise."

According to Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University London, columnist for The Guardian and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, the press's motivation for publicizing the Lawrence case stemmed from anger toward the boys, rather than concern for the racial implications involved. 

"Actually, what The Daily Mail was doing was reflecting the anger of its editor, Paul Dacre, and his perceptions," said Cathcart in an interview. "This wasn't about race at all, but instead white young men, turning up to court and essentially raising two fingers to the coroner, and he was offended and angered by this. He [Dacre] was assured by police sources and by his own news desk that there was every reason to believe these boys were guilty. So he said, 'All right, let's do this.'"

But some believe the media took a large step outside the bounds of constructive journalism or factual reporting when it implicated five young men who were merely suspects at the time of the trials.

"I certainly think it's not something any editor should do lightly," said Cathcart. "I don't think it's normally within the means of a newspaper to accuse people of guilt, particularly when he [Dacre] didn't have the evidence . . . he didn't know if they'd done it.

"On the other hand," continued Cathcart, "the background for this case provides some justification for it: this was clearly a case in which the normal practices for justice had failed."

But Byrne recognizes the weight of the media on public perception, especially in instances where bias may seep through and permeate a situation that calls for neutrality.

"I think the press is really damaging to court cases," Byrne said. "Lots of the people you would speak to about this would say, 'Hang them, they deserve whatever they get.'

"And it's not necessarily that they've thought it through and that's how they feel about things; it's that that is what the press has basically told them to think," she added.

The press influence was certainly a factor in 2012 when a jury convicted Dobson and Norris for the first time in the second hearing of the Lawrence case. However, there was not sufficient evidence to charge the Acourt brothers and Knight for a second time.

"The media's impact was huge," Turner stated. "I don't think there is a court in this country that could have tried Dobson and Norris that didn't have a jury that didn't already know something about the case."

But Cathcart expressed surprise at the defense's inaction during the most recent hearings, stating that a claim of prejudice could have been made based on a possible violation of the Contempt of Court Act of 1983.

The Act, which is essentially a ban on reporting private details of a case from the moment of an arrest, was created with the intention of protecting innocent people from being tried in the press — to the point where it would become impossible to impanel an unbiased jury or to the point where a jury might become biased by the coverage.

"I've seen cases where I know people were wrongly convicted as a result of press misbehavior, press breaches of the Contempt of Court Act, so I've advocated the attorney general to enforce the law personally," said Cathcart. "I actually firmly expected these issues to be aired at the trial, but they weren't really."

The 2012 jury members were uniquely young in age, primarily ages 18 to 23. This factor aids in detachment because those who were making the final judgment were merely school children at the time of the murder and, arguably, less likely to have been keeping tabs on press coverage during the case's spotlight years of 1993–97.

Having passed the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, the High Court allowed a re-trial of Dobson and Norris on the basis of new and compelling evidence. This act redefined double jeopardy, the law that previously protected defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime.

Now 37 and 36 respectively, Dobson and Norris sit in prison cells as a result of 12 new jurors' interpretation of a 20-year-old case. In the U.K., jury selection is a non-existent process and attorneys are not permitted to filter out jurors who may exhibit bias. Exceptions to this limitation include seating jurors who live within the area of the crime committed or those who are personally related to any parties testifying.

But some wonder if it was possible to have an unbiased jury in the Lawrence case, given the declarations of guilt made by London newspapers for decades.

"It is simply fact that the law does what it can," said Cathcart. "You can't make the law retrospective. In actual reality, there's not much that judicials of a 2012 trial could do about something that was printed in 1997."

Many questioned the ethics behind The Mail's decision to print the definitive blame-mongering headline, but others suggest that readers have the power to dictate their own biases, regardless of what is displayed on the newsstands.

"I think that we should make it our own responsibility to find out the facts about things and not just listen to what we're told or believe everything that we read," said Byrne. "We need to understand that there are different sides to a story and that we don't get all of the information."

Twenty years and hundreds of newspaper stories later, two of Stephen Lawrence's killers have been brought to justice; first in bold-faced font and 15 years later in the Old Bailey courthouse.

"None of the five has ever sued The Mail for libel," wrote Doreen Lawrence. "Their silence is more eloquent than any denial."

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