A tale of our times;Book of the week

4th June 1999 at 01:00
THE CASE OF STEPHEN LAWRENCE. By Brian Cathcart. Viking pound;16.99.

What killed Stephen Lawrence - racism or sheer blind thuggery? Michael Marland finds answers in a compelling and authoritative account of the tragedy

This extremely well-researched and well-written book is an intricate and illuminating account of the Stephen Lawrence case - and, through that, an analysis of many aspects of our society and its institutions.

The author understandably declares that he has "resisted the temptation to add context such as social history, comparison with other cases or commentary on the culture of the Metropolitan Police". Nevertheless, the skilled analysis and deft juxtaposition of detail in these 400 pages inevitably prompts the reader to consider just those questions.

Cathcart has made impressive use of the mass of official papers and his own observation to select and weave together a range of evidence.

Most readers will have memories of much of the newspaper coverage since 19-year-old Stephen Lawrence was murdered on a south London street in 1993, but those headline-focused reports often over-emphasised what was judged to be especially newsworthy at that time. This telling of the story puts all the details and the public concerns together in a way that is truly revealing, intellectually stimulating and deeply moving.

The first chapter describes the murder, starting with breakfast in the Lawrence home and ending with the recognition of Stephen's death in the hospital resuscitation room. There are then eight chapters on the police investigations.

It is one of the author's strengths that he can bring to life the smallest details of the inquiries, with all their difficulties and confusions, so that the reader can picture the sequence and the atmosphere very clearly, but without implying criticism or praise. In this way he leaves the reader to consider the process in the light of the later criticisms made by the Kent Police inquiry and the Macpherson public inquiry.

There are clear accounts of the decisions made by the Crown Prosecution Service, the inquest and the various later inquiries.

There is also a moving account of how Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville, came to England from Jamaica, married and had their first child, and this personal background is related well to the deep sadness of Stephen's death.

The reactions and views of Doreen and Neville on the handling of the case are well described throughout, with the interaction of press, public, and political comments woven in.

For readers working in education, as for everyone, a significant theme is the question of racism: to what extent were the police officers affected by their clearly limited understanding of the bias of their responses and of the complexity of inter-ethnic relationships?

Doreen Lawrence has said she felt "rebuffed, patronised, and marginalised" by the officers. The Home Secretary subsequently strongly accepted the Macpherson Report as having "at its heart a new definition and a new recognition of institutionalised racism".

The press coverage understandably emphasised this aspect of the case, but in so doing did we as a nation underestimate another aspect: the general unpleasantness and danger of the youths presumed to be the attackers? The book does not stress this, but the sequence of details points it up. For instance, a key part of one detective sergeant's remarks to the inquiry is quoted, and his view is there to be pondered: "They were thugs who were out to kill, not particularly a black person but anybody, and I believe to this day that that was...not racism, just pure, bloody-minded thuggery."

In our understanding of our society and of our failures to bring up some boys as supportive members of it, it is necessary, surely, to face the fact that the racist element in this murder was part of a wider inhumanity.

The complex evidence on the possibilities of police corruption is set out clearly and apparently objectively. The police barristers pleaded mitigation and stressed that the failures could be seen only with hindsight.

In particular it was agreed that the police response to Stephen's friend, Duwayne Brooks, at the scene of the murder, and to Doreen and Neville Lawrence's grief and bewilderment at the hospital, wholly lacked sensitivity.

A vital point is that arrests should have been made earlier than 14 days after the murder, since crucial evidence was lost during this time. Cathcart's conclusion is that the Macpherson Report meant that: "Most people now accepted that the Metropolitan Police had failed catastrophically."

This book is strong in weaving all the wide-ranging evidence and direct observation into a narrative that is gripping, vivid, and analytic. It mourns Stephen's death in a way that compellingly confronts just how tragically his young life was wasted.

Michael Marland is headteacher of North Westminster Community School, London

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