London’s first murder of 2012 took place a few streets away from my apartment, at 4 am on New Year’s Day. Aaron McKoy, described by one friend as “a humble person who loved life,” had been celebrating his 22nd birthday in a local wine bar and was shot, reportedly after an argument in the bar. The sidewalk where he died is marked by yellow police incident boards, bouquets of flowers and messages that winter rain has already streaked and faded. Nothing will so easily blur the pain behind those messages, but justice—the trial, conviction and sentencing of McKoy’s assailant—may at least bring some comfort and closure for his family and friends. In any given year, London’s Metropolitan Police Service expects 85%-95% of all homicide cases to lead to charges; the average time between a violent offense being committed in England and Wales and completion of the legal process is 162 days. A man has already been arrested on suspicion of the McKoy killing.
The murder of McKoy, who was black, should be treated with the utmost seriousness by the Met. If it is, that will in part be the legacy of Stephen Lawrence, another another black Londoner cut down ridiculously young, aged 18. Lawrence’s family and friends have been made to wait for comfort and closure as many years as Lawrence himself lived, but on Jan. 3 they finally got it with the conviction for murder of Gary Dobson, 36, and David Norris, 35. The pair were among a gang of white teenagers that attacked Lawrence and his friend Duwayne Brooks without provocation in April 1993 at a bus stop in Eltham, South London. “Some JUSTICE at last,” tweeted Brooks after the verdict.
Police bungles and the force’s institutional racism—laid bare in a 1999 public inquiry into the original investigation—came close to letting Lawrence’s killers go free, but his parents, Doreen and Stephen, refused to give up. After their private prosecution against three suspects—Dobson, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight—foundered, they continued to lobby for their son and for changes to the system that failed him in life and in death. A police camera concealed in Dobson’s apartment in 1994 had not produced conclusive evidence relating to Lawrence’s death but revealed a culture of boastful racism among the suspects. In 1997, the mass-market Daily Mail took the risky step of naming five men Lawrence’s killers: they were Dobson, Norris, Knight, Acourt and Acourt’s brother Jamie. “MURDERERS,” read the uncompromising headline. “The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.”
The men did not sue and the Mail‘s intervention piled on pressure for the public inquiry which in turn forced the Met, also known as Scotland Yard, into a series of important reforms. The riots that flared in Tottenham, north London, last August after the shooting by Metropolitan Police officers of a black man called Mark Duggan were a reminder of how much the police still have to do to convince Londoners that law enforcement is colorblind. Yet a glance back at policing at the time of riots in the same part of London in 1985 should also provide perspective on progress already made.
The discovery in 2007 of forensic evidence linking Dobson and Norris to Stephen Lawrence finally meant progress on his case too. The Lawrences’ campaign had helped push a 2005 change in Britain’s law on double jeopardy to enable a suspect to be tried for a second time if “new, reliable, compelling and substantial evidence” emerged. This meant Dobson, acquitted in the private prosecution, could be brought back to court on the basis of that forensic evidence, which also helped to convict Norris, standing trial for the first time.
After the verdicts, Neville Lawrence highlighted a factor mitigating family joy. “I am also conscious of the fact that there were five or six attackers that night,” he said in a statement read by his lawyer. “I do not think I’ll be able to rest until they are all brought to justice.”
Speaking with the eloquence that has made her such a formidable campaigner, his former wife and Stephen’s mother Doreen vented her anger:
How can I celebrate when my son lies buried? When I cannot see him or speak to him When will I see him grow up and go to university or get married and have children? These verdicts will not bring my son back. How can I celebrate when I know this day could have come 18 years ago if the police who were meant to find my son’s killers [had not] failed so miserably to do so? These are not reasons to celebrate.
This result shows that the police can do their job properly but only if they want to. I only hope that they have learnt their lesson and don’t put any other family through what we have been put through. The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.
The police didn’t initially pursue justice for Stephen with the vigor they would have dedicated to a white victim. It will be scant comfort for the Lawrences or the family of Aaron McKoy, slain on New Year’s Day, if his killer is brought quickly to justice. But it will be comfort nonetheless.