Earlier this week, Neville Lawrence made a pilgrimage of sorts to the bus stop where his 18-year-old son, Stephen, was fatally stabbed 25 years ago by a gang of racist youths for no other reason than because he was black.
Neville rarely goes there. For many years, he could not even bring himself to drive along the road in South-East London where his desperately wounded son ran for some 350 yards before he fell. A memorial plaque now marks the place with the words: ‘In memory of Stephen Lawrence 13.9.1974 to 22.4.1993. May he Rest in Peace.’
It is a peace that has eluded Neville for much of the 25 years since. ‘I was so angry about what those people did to my son. I’d think: “I wish the next time you go out, someone knocks you down with a car and kills you, or if you get into a fight, somebody kills you.”
‘When you know the damage they did to him . . .’ His voice hardens. ‘They pushed a knife through his side that went through his arm first and into his heart and down here . . .’ He stabs his chest with his fist. ‘The knife went straight down into his lungs and severed an artery. I don’t know how my boy ran 350 yards, but he did.
Neville Lawrence (pictured) astonished many this week when he released a statement to say he has forgiven his son’s murderers. He did so only after much soul-searching
‘When the doctor told us Stephen was dead, I remember going into a room in the hospital, seeing my son lying there, touching him — he was warm — and, after that, nothing.
‘It was as if my brain had been turned upside down and the Neville I used to be stopped existing. I became somebody else. I didn’t even know who that was. I just had those bad thoughts and, if you carry those thoughts long enough, they eat you up.’
This week, when Neville returned to that bus stop, there was no anger. ‘I was in bits. I almost broke down and started crying. The pain of losing Stephen will never get better — never. My son was going to be an architect, which is something I wanted to be. I was expecting to be able to walk down the street and say: “That’s a building my son made.”
‘Instead, my son has become famous — in a sense, like a legend — for being killed. That’s a strange thing and it’s taken me a long time to accept it. I’ve had to learn to look at things in a different way.’
Neville astonished many this week when he released a statement to say he has forgiven his son’s murderers. He did so only after much soul-searching and believes that if he hadn’t let go of his hatred, ‘I wouldn’t be here talking to you now’.
Neville has long been regarded as a man of few words, but with forgiveness has come liberation. Today, the feelings he had kept locked deep inside for so many years come tumbling out.
This is the first time he has spoken with such raw honesty about his personal struggles.
‘I was so angry — even in my sleep, I’d be thinking bad thoughts. Gradually, I’ve let those thoughts go. I’ve got to the stage now where I don’t even remember the names of the guys who killed him. They used to be here.’ He taps his forehead. ‘Slowly, the anger is going away.’
Earlier this week, Neville Lawrence made a pilgrimage of sorts to the bus stop where his 18-year-old son, Stephen, was fatally stabbed 25 years ago
Today, Neville, 76, looks a decade younger than the beleaguered man who stood on the Old Bailey steps when two of his son’s murderers, Gary Dobson, now 42, and David Norris, 41, were sentenced to life imprisonment six years ago.
Those convictions, the first since Stephen’s death, might well have been a victory for justice, but they didn’t ease Neville’s suffering. Nor the suffering of Stephen’s mother, Baroness Lawrence, who, in an emotional interview with this newspaper earlier this month, confessed she hasn’t known true happiness since her son’s death, and spoke of her desire to ‘draw a line’ under her tireless campaigning for Stephen.
She also urged police, in the absence of significant leads, to close the investigation.
Neville disagrees. ‘After the verdict, I went to my son’s grave in Jamaica. I know a lot of people would say you’re mad talking to somebody who’s dead, but I talk to him. I said: “We’ve got two of them, I don’t know if we’re going to get any more, but we have that satisfaction for the time being.” ’
He falls silent and, for a moment, he is thousands of miles away, at the peaceful plot in Jamaica where his son lies buried in the shade of coconut and ackee trees. ‘Knowing my son’s lying there in the ground, sometimes I just go to pieces.
‘Even now when I start talking about it, my eyes fill up because I know what kind of person he was — what kind of person he would have been.
For many years, Neville could not even bring himself to drive along the road in South-East London where his desperately wounded son ran for some 350 yards before he fell
‘We had some justice, but I’m still hoping for total justice, which is why I don’t want them to close the case. I want them to scale the investigation down, but not close it.
‘With all the publicity there is at the moment, someone might decide to come forward and say something they haven’t before.’
This week, Stephen’s death has dominated the media.
To mark the 25th anniversary, a gripping three-part BBC documentary, Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation, examined in forensic detail the senseless murder and the fight for justice, passionately championed by the Daily Mail, which led to the exposure of institutional racism running deep in the Metropolitan Police. The repercussions continue to reverberate throughout every level of society to this day.
On Monday, leading dignitaries, including Prince Harry and Prime Minister Theresa May, will gather at a memorial service in London, organised by Baroness Lawrence, to remember Stephen and celebrate all that has been achieved in his name.
Until three days ago, Neville thought he wouldn’t be there. He had not been invited, until Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick intervened. Neville does not dwell upon the reasons why he wasn’t on the guest list. He simply says: ‘I wanted to go. It’s my son, but I wasn’t the one arranging it, so what could I do?
‘On Wednesday evening, the police commissioner phoned. She said she hadn’t seen an invitation for me, so now I’m going.’
The Lawrences’ 27-year marriage collapsed in 1999 under the intolerable pain of their son’s death. In her interview with the Mail two weeks ago, Stephen’s mother said: ‘Neville and I were two different people after that night. They say a tragedy like that either pushes you together or pulls you apart. The latter is exactly what happened.
‘Neville seemed to believe this thing had only happened to him and not to the rest of us . . . We can’t know how life would have been without Stephen’s murder, but I do know I felt alone. I was alone.’
They both continue to play active parts in the lives of Stephen’s younger brother, Stuart, now 40, sister Georgina, 35, and their three grandchildren, but have barely exchanged a word since that 2012 trial.
‘Maybe if Stephen’s murder had been solved quickly and we hadn’t had all that pressure for so long, Doreen and I would have been able to resolve things,’ says Neville. ‘But we haven’t been speaking for quite a while now. I last saw her last year when I was picking up the grandkids, but . . .’ The sentence ends in a shrug.
‘I’m going to be in the [Pentecostal] Kensington Temple church on Sunday to remember Stephen and talk about forgiveness. We’ve seen with my son’s murder what hatred does.’
Neville is impassioned as he says this. He might not be the public face of the Stephen Lawrence Campaign for Justice, but he works diligently as chair of the Violent Crime Prevention group, trying to make our streets safer.
‘They reckon some 50 people have been stabbed to death this year. When I hear someone’s child has been killed, I think about how those parents are going to cope. Doreen and I have never spoken of anything together since that night. I tried to discuss some of the things that were happening with her and she refused. She said she didn’t want to talk about it. What can you do?
The Lawrences’ 27-year marriage collapsed in 1999 under the intolerable pain of their son’s death. Pictured: Doreen and Neville Lawrence at the first murder trial
‘In a way, I felt she was blaming me for Stephen’s death. Whether that was right or wrong, I don’t know, but that’s what I was feeling inside.
‘Doreen was away on a field trip for her degree when Stephen was murdered. I was supposed to be looking after the children. If something happens to your child when one of you is away, straight away you start thinking: “If I’d been here, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
‘She hasn’t said she blames me, but I think she does. I know I was blaming myself.’
Neville, a talented plasterer and decorator, had been looking after the children for two days when Stephen left for school that day. By nature a warm, jovial man, his spirits had been worn down by a lack of work during the recession.
The marriage was, he concedes, going through a difficult patch, but he believed the overriding love they had for their children would help them to weather it.
‘I thought I wouldn’t have any children because it took so long to find someone I wanted to marry,’ says Neville. ‘I’d made this promise to myself I would not have a child out of wedlock. I wanted to be married to somebody, so my children could grow up in my house and I could have influence over them.
‘Stephen was my first-born child. I was there when he arrived. When he came out of hospital, I was worried all night because there were a lot of cot deaths about at the time. I kept getting up to listen to him breathing.’
A memorial plaque now marks the place with the words: ‘In memory of Stephen Lawrence 13.9.1974 to 22.4.1993. May he Rest in Peace’
Neville was a hands-on father who changed nappies and fed his son. He still has the first pair of baby shoes Stephen wore. ‘When he left that day, I was sitting at the window feeling really low about the fact I wasn’t working to support my family.
‘He said: “Dad, are you OK?” I said: “Yes I’m fine.” He said: “Are you sure?” I said: “Yes, and remember your mummy’s coming back tonight. I’m going to do dinner, so come straight home from school.” ’
But Stephen didn’t come home.
Instead, two neighbours knocked on the door to tell Doreen, by now home, and Neville, that Stephen had been attacked. They called police stations and searched the streets. Finding no sign of their son, they went to a nearby hospital and learned he had been admitted.
‘When we got to the hospital, I asked where Stephen was. The doctor said: “We’re working on him.” They showed us to a waiting room. When I saw a nurse and doctor walking down the corridor, I’m thinking: “Please, God, let them tell me he’s going to be OK.” They told us he was dead.
‘After touching my son on that hospital slab, I can remember nothing else.’
Neville’s next memory is waking up the following morning. He thought his son’s death was a bad dream.
‘The first thing I did was go to Stephen’s bedroom to see if his bed had been slept in. When I saw it hadn’t, I knew that what I’d remembered was true.
‘For a few days, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even remember my full name. I was walking around kind of stunted in a way.
‘It affected me so much. I was never the Neville who was here before Stephen was murdered. I was different.’
David Norris (left) and Gary Dobson were convicted of Stephen’s murder six years ago
He continues: ‘If I heard somebody laugh, I’d get really angry. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to laugh about.
‘If I saw people grieving differently to me — say, my ex was acting differently — I’d start thinking: “That person isn’t grieving because they’re not doing it the way I’m doing it.”
‘I made a mistake thinking Doreen should be doing the same as me because we’d both lost a son. I now know that everyone deals with bereavement in different ways.
‘Doreen was taking it so hard, she had to be sedated, so I had to go to the police station on my own to appeal for witnesses. I was feeling: “She’s not there with me when I should have someone there.” We were both like strangers. All the feelings I had for Doreen before Stephen’s death changed and I don’t know why. Neither of us were our normal selves.
‘We also had all these people from different organisations in the house. [He is referring to the anti-racist pressure groups who championed Stephen’s case.]
‘At one stage, a secretary from the Anti-Racist Alliance took up residence in the house. They were trying to take control of us, insisting anyone who wanted to help us should talk to them first.
‘One night, a guy from the ARA went on television and started talking about my family.’
From the one killer still free, not a shred of remorse…
The only Stephen Lawrence murder suspect still walking the streets of Britain showed little remorse when confronted ahead of the 25th anniversary of the teenager’s killing.
Luke Knight, 41, shouted an obscenity when the Mail tracked him down to his flat in New Eltham, South-East London, some two miles from where Stephen was stabbed to death by a gang of five white youths in 1993.
Luke Knight, 41, showed little remorse when confronted ahead of the 25th anniversary
Before a reporter could question him, the roofer, wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, shouted: ‘Oh, f*** off, mate,’ before slamming his door.
His outburst came after the BBC broadcast the first of its three-part series on Britain’s most notorious race murder. Earlier, Knight had his trademark swagger as he walked down the street near where he and his cohorts once terrorised locals.
In February 1997, the Mail accused Knight’s gang of murdering 18-year-old Stephen in a savage, unprovoked attack as he waited with a friend at a bus-stop on April 22, 1993.
Two of the gang, Gary Dobson, now 42, and David Norris, 41, are serving life for the killing, after a forensic breakthrough led to a second murder trial six years ago. A third, Neil Acourt, 42, is in jail for masterminding a £4 million cannabis ring.
The market trader’s son has never displayed a shred of remorse for Stephen’s killing
His brother, Jamie, 41, the fourth man we named, is wanted for his links to serious drugs crimes. He is thought to be on the run in Spain.
That just leaves father-of-two Knight. To this day, anyone asking questions in Eltham, where the gang’s families still live, is met with hostility. Last year, his mother told us: ‘Nobody here will talk to you.’
The market trader’s son has never displayed a shred of remorse for Stephen’s killing, but has complained of the impact it has had on his life.
Last week, Scotland Yard said the case will be shelved unless new leads are found. But investigator Chris Le Pere said publicity around the 25th anniversary could throw up clues.
Neville put his foot down. ‘I said: “This is my family and anything there is to say about my family, I say, not you. Anyone who wants to help us comes through me.” ’
The police mishandling of the case added to the pressure. ‘They waited for us to go to Jamaica before they announced they’d dropped the case [in July 1993] because of insufficient evidence. We were at my son’s grave in Jamaica when we got the message.
‘I couldn’t believe it. I was saying to myself: “How can they drop it when they’ve told me they have the forensics?” They didn’t. That’s the toughest thing. The police knew who these boys were.
‘They should have brought them in for questioning in the early days and gathered evidence.”
Determined to seek justice for Stephen, his parents launched a private prosecution of their own — the first in modern British legal history — against Dobson and two other suspects, Luke Knight and Neil Acourt.
In April 1996, the case collapsed within days after Mr Justice Curtis ruled identification evidence from Stephen’s friend, Duwayne Brooks, who was with him when he was attacked, was inadmissible.
During legal argument, the judge had heard that during the investigation he had identified three or four different individuals as the main person who had attacked Stephen Lawrence.
Neville says: ‘I’ve since spoken to Duwayne and now understand he was traumatised. He still is.’
Neville was, he says, ‘a broken man’. ‘I was devastated. I developed asthma and started having problems with my breathing. I felt I was alone dealing with everything. It was a strain on my health.
‘The doctors advised me to go to Jamaica for a break. I went for six months and felt at peace with my birth family around me. I felt somebody wanted me. I didn’t feel wanted here. I think I almost went back to being normal away from all the hype. I decided to stay for another six months.’
Neville was recuperating in Jamaica when he received a letter from his wife. She wanted a divorce. ‘She decided I’d deserted her and then she decided she didn’t want to be with me.
‘I called her and said: “Let’s discuss it when I come back to England.” She said she didn’t want to talk. She’d made up her mind.
‘That was another breaking point for me, knowing I hadn’t just lost my first child, but my wife and the chance to raise my other kids as well.
‘It was the Daily Mail’s front page that gave me hope again.’
In February 1997, the day after an inquest into Stephen’s murder delivered a verdict of unlawful killing ‘in a completely unprovoked attack by five youths’, this newspaper identified the five white racists on its front page and accused them of being murderers.
We invited them to sue if we were wrong.
They never have, but the furore that followed that headline — with calls for the Mail’s editor to be jailed — had profound consequences. Neville says: ‘That was a brave move. Suddenly, I felt we weren’t in this on our own. I knew the editor was putting himself out there.
‘He was doing it for Stephen — for justice. The way the Daily Mail campaigned for that is why we need a free press.
‘If we hadn’t had that when Stephen was murdered, I don’t believe we’d be where we are now.’
The Macpherson Inquiry followed. Neville collected his decree nisi from the High Court the day the report was published, in February 1999. It concluded that the police investigation was ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.’
Neville remembers a ‘bittersweet’ day. It would take a further 12 years before Dobson and Norris stood trial, following a review of forensic evidence and the decision by Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2005, following a Mail campaign, to scrap the double jeopardy rule, which prevented suspects being tried twice for the same crime.
Doreen and Neville sat at the Old Bailey trial with a friend or lawyer strategically positioned between them. They barely exchanged a glance.
The breakdown of his marriage continues to cause Neville pain. In the years since, he has completed a bereavement counselling course to support other families who suffer as he has.
‘For a time, I’d hoped I’d find somebody to love because the loneliness was really bad, but it didn’t happen,’ he says.
‘I was looking for the wrong kind of person. Most of the people I associated with were people in my kind of situation, with almost the same problems. I thought they would understand me better. They don’t. You’re both damaged goods.
‘I’m starting to heal, but it will take a while. Those moods swings still come when I hear a certain song on the radio or am reminded of something that I used to do with Stephen.’
Neville now divides his year between England and Jamaica, where the church is a cornerstone of island life. He was baptised on January 13 last year into the Seventh-Day Adventists religion of his youth.
‘I still think about my loss: what might have been, what Stephen might have become — of going down the road and seeing a house he designed.
‘But I never imagined my son would have this impact on society. He was here for a certain reason.
‘It took me a long time to start even thinking that way, but it’s helped me to forgive and let go of my pain. Doreen is in the same situation as me. Maybe she should be able to do the same.’