Monday, 16 January 2012

The Stephen Lawrence trial

Most of our blog entries are written by academic staff, however we welcome entries by our postgraduate students.  Here is an interesting personal view linked to criminological history from one of our PhD students, Guy Woolnough.  Responses welcome subject to our editorial control.

The verdict in the Lawrence case is welcome, in that it addresses the terrible wrong committed by the killers, and also the terrible wrong of the failure of the police to investigate properly in the days after the murder. But I do feel a sense of unease about the longer term implications of this case. The two men who have been convicted of this terrible crime have been pursued by the legal system for years, to such an extent and with such frenzy that it must be impossible for any thinking adult to be unaware of the case and to have no opinion on the subject. We have even seen the law changed with the express purpose of putting these killers on trial for a second time. The impetus to pursue this case has come from public opinion, which I find unsettling because we seem to have reached a point where a person is convicted because that is what the public want.

It reminds me of the Acts of Attainder passed by Parliament, in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the traitor was condemned and executed simply because Parliament had so decreed it. Evidence was unnecessary; all that was needed was a simple majority and the king’s signature. Acts of Attainder and ex post facto laws are prohibited by the United States Constitution, but we seem to have allowed such abuses of law to operate in this case.

Howsoever I feel pleased for the Lawrence family that some resolution has been achieved for them by this verdict, I feel uneasy for the future. Will we see further cases where the press and public opinion conduct a hue and cry to secure the conviction of persons who are generally reviled? Will unpleasant offenders like Gary Glitter be pursued by the use of retrials until the public get the result they want?

It may be objected that the Lawrence case was different because the retrial was made possible by the discovery of new evidence. This is a disingenuous argument. With modern forensic science, the discovery of new evidence will always be possible. The real problem in this case was not, in fact, the lack of evidence but the failure of the police to search properly for the necessary evidence in the immediate aftermath of the killing. Although the killers’ names were passed to the police within hours, they failed to act decisively and inadvertently allowed the criminals to destroy the clues.

The positive outcome of this case must be that the police should investigate all serious cases with objective thoroughness from the outset. We must avoid the awful possibility of public opinion operating like a sanitised lynch mob to get the result it desires.

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