At around 2.50pm on 3 January 2012, Court 16 at the Old Bailey fell quiet. The room was not silent exactly. A murder trial is rarely still enough for silence. Among the dozens of assembled lawyers, jurors, journalists, members of the public, relatives of the victim, defendants, policemen and court staff, someone is usually whispering, or adjusting a chair, or dropping a pen. But, at this moment, the room became noiseless enough that – had you been concentrating on it – you might have heard the fizz of the Central Criminal Court’s heating ducts. It wasn’t silence, but it felt like it.
The clerk of the court, Lorraine Duggan, stood in her black gown and silver wig in front of the judge’s dais. She asked the defendants to rise. Gary Dobson, who is 36, with fleshy cheeks and short, dark hair in a side parting, pursed his lips. David Norris, who is bony, with thinning hair and a waxy pallor, looks much older than his 35 years. As he stood, he held his head tilted upwards and cocked to one side.
A few feet away – and the other side of a heavy sheet of reinforced Perspex – sat Neville Lawrence, a large West Indian man in his late sixties with a grey beard and a wide, expressive face. Eighteen years, eight months, eleven days and 16 hours previously, his eldest son, Stephen, was murdered in southeast London. Despite years of campaigning with Stephen’s mother, Doreen, no one had ever come close to being convicted for his son’s murder, until now. As he awaited the verdict, Neville’s head rested against his right hand, as if he were considering some knotty question. His vast body did not move.
Duggan asked the foreman of the jury to rise. The juror who addressed the court appeared to be in his late twenties. He had fair hair and a two-day beard, and wore a red lumberjack shirt. For almost every day of the seven-week trial, I had sat a yard away from this young man. I’d watched him take copious notes; had witnessed his growing stash of Twix bars beneath the jury’s worktop; and had smiled when he nodded off midway through the closing speech from Dobson’s barrister – only to wake, flushed, and signal to the usher for fresh notepaper.
Now, he stood and faced the clerk.
“Members of the jury,” Duggan said, “have you reached verdicts in respect of both defendants upon which you are all agreed?”
“Members of the jury, do you find the defendant Gary Dobson guilty or not guilty on this indictment of murder?”
In a faint voice, the foreman gave his reply.
This is the story of the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen Lawrence’s murder. It is not an account of his parents’ battle for justice, or the ramifications of Stephen’s death, or the racial attitudes of the Metropolitan Police. Acres of newsprint have already been sacrificed to these subjects. No, this narrative is simpler. It relates what was said and done over seven weeks in Court 16 of the Old Bailey – a brightly lit room about the size of two squash courts knocked together, furnished in blond wood and green, studbacked leather.
But this trial, as you must know, did not fall from the clear blue sky. And, in order to understand how, on a wild day in January this year, a young man with a two-day beard and a quiver in his voice delivered a verdict that sounded across Britain, some background might help.
First, the murder. At around 10.30pm on 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was fatally wounded in an unprovoked attack by a gang of between four and six white youths. He had been waiting for a bus on Well Hall Road in Eltham with his best friend, Duwayne Brooks, when he was surrounded, knifed twice and left for dead. Lawrence was an easy-going A-level student from a supportive family, who had ambitions to become an architect. He did not know the group who attacked him and they did not know him. There appeared to be only one catalyst for the violence: racism. According to Brooks, one of the white youths called out “What? What, nigger?” in the seconds before the fatal collision.
Despite the repellent nature of the crime, the police botched the investigation, and failed to pursue several tip-offs regarding the identities of the likely perpetrators. Although five teenagers were arrested two weeks after the murder, a barrister later advised the Crown Prosecution Service that there was not “a cat in hell’s chance” of convicting the boys. Ultimately, the CPS discontinued its prosecution.
The Lawrences did not concede defeat. In 1996, they brought a private prosecution against three of the five suspects, Neil Acourt, Luke Knight and Dobson, which collapsed after a week. But, despite and because of this setback, their cause began to be championed across the political and racial spectrum. In 1997, the Daily Mail splashed pictures of the five suspects across its front page below its famous headline: “MURDERERS”. In 1999, the Macpherson report into the “events surrounding” Stephen’s death branded the police “institutionally racist”. Most significantly, the Lawrences’ plight helped changed the law of double jeopardy, by which those acquitted in front of a jury could not be retried for the same crime. In 2003, partly because of the findings of the Macpherson report, double jeopardy was annulled in serious criminal cases. This development meant that the three men found “not guilty” of Stephen’s death could be retried if there was “compelling new evidence”.
It was not until 2006, however, that a new trial seemed anything but theoretical. The police asked a pioneering forensics company named LGC to examine the Lawrence exhibits for incriminating DNA evidence – and, some years later, they pulled a rabbit from the hat. Hairs, fibres and blood belonging to Lawrence were found on garments seized from Dobson and Norris in 1993. Most significantly, the scientists discovered a tiny blood stain, measuring 0.5mm by 0.25mm, which had soaked into the collar of a jacket believed to have been worn by Dobson during the attack. After a four-year review, costing £4m, the total of the new scientific evidence was barely visible to the naked eye; but it would serve.
Armed with these findings, the police charged Dobson and Norris with murder on 8 September 2010. The director of public prosecutions then applied to the Court of Appeal to quash Dobson’s original acquittal in the private prosecution and won. Eighteen years after that cold, clear night in Eltham – a lifetime, Stephen’s lifetime – there would be another murder trial.
The opening salvoes of a murder trial can sometimes lack drama. There are matters of administration and scheduling to attend to; a day of business, but little content, like the first day of a school term. Not in this trial. When Dobson and Norris entered the dock on 14 November 2011 – amid a clanging of keys, and accompanied by four burly officers – a frisson passed through the room.
At that moment, Court 16 was packed to the gunwales and, as the defendants were brought in, many eyes were trained on the Lawrences. Stephen’s parents divorced in 1999, but present a united front in public. On that Monday, they sat on a reserved row of seats, divided only by Stephen’s younger brother, Stuart, and their solicitors. Doreen, a small woman with braided hair, looked tight with nerves. Neville gave little away. In quiet moments, Stuart sketched.
Mr Justice Treacy – dressed in the red, furlined robes of a High Court judge – has a hangdog expression and a kindly manner, and he established a fast pace from the outset. A jury was whittled down from 49 to 12 in a day. Those who had any connection with the police, or the CPS, or forensic science, or any of the families involved in the case, or even the area where the attack took place, were excluded. He also wished to exclude any potential jurors who had a “detailed knowledge” of the case.
The trouble was there can be very few adults in Britain with no knowledge of the case. Before this trial, the very name of Stephen Lawrence signified, at however basic a level, injustice and victimhood. Whatever instructions Treacy delivered to the jury about disregarding media coverage, what were the chances that every juror approached their duties without prejudice? On the day after the jury were sworn in, the Lawrence trial was splashed across the front pages of eight national newspapers.
In any event, that particular elephant shivered in the corner of the courtroom, and by lunchtime on Tuesday 15 November we had our dozen. Seven appeared to be in their twenties or early thirties. Eight were men, and of those, six were white, one was Asian and one was black. All four women were white. Every single juror looked shell-shocked. A day ago, they had been ordinary citizens. Now, they were to decide the murder trial of the decade.
Before the trial proper started, the judge addressed the jurors. He talked about an ITV miniseries, The Jury, which had aired the previous week.
“That,” he said in his deliberate, teacherly voice, “was fiction. This is real life.”
As if they needed reminding.
And then it was down to business. On the morning of Tuesday 15 November 2011, Mark Ellison QC stood, and began to make the case for the prosecution. As he spoke, he leant on a box file, pausing occasionally to push at the bridge of his glasses. Despite being a QC (a Queen’s Counsel, or “silk”; the elite rank of criminal barrister) it’s possible that Ellison felt a few nerves. He has a natural bullishness – an impression reinforced by the bulk around his neck and shoulders – and, during this opening address, one could sense he was reining himself in. There were long pauses. He allowed the jurors to acclimatise themselves to their alien surroundings.
Item by item, Ellison introduced the jury to the key exhibits in the case. They were shown the clothes Stephen was wearing on the night of his murder: a vest; a red polo shirt; a green body warmer; a blue cardigan; a black Raiders jacket; and a pair of green “elephant cord” trousers. They saw a picture of Dobson’s greyand- yellow “Supertramp” jacket that the prosecution said had been worn during the attack, on which the speck of blood had been found; an image of a multicoloured cardigan, also taken from Dobson’s house; and the varnishstained pair of jeans, and turquoise jumper taken from David Norris’ bedroom, on which LGC believed they had found Lawrence hairs and fibres.
Ellison did not overstate his case. He emphasised that the collar bloodstain was “tiny”. Likewise, he did not argue that the new evidence proved that either Dobson or Norris wielded a knife in the attack. But he said that because of the rule of joint enterprise – by which members of a like-minded group who carry out an attack are equally culpable – they must be “guilty of his murder”.
In the early afternoon, Dobson’s barrister, Tim Roberts QC, stood to address the jury. Roberts is a trim, ostensibly unremarkable man, who wears rimless spectacles. He speaks slowly, with a priestly seriousness and a hint of his native Northeast in his vowels. At first, I thought a jury might find his slowness patronising. But as the trial progressed, I realised Roberts was dangerous. His delivery made him authoritative, and he possessed a predatory facility to identify the weakest part of witnesses’ testimony and – mildly, politely – gut them where they stood.
Roberts’ opening remarks were characteristically straightforward. “The charge brought against Gary Dobson is based on unreliable evidence,” he said to the court. “At the time that Stephen Lawrence was being attacked, Gary Dobson was at home in his parents’ house. He is innocent of this charge. The papers in this case are voluminous, but the actual physical evidence, upon which this charge is brought, the fibres and fragments, would not fill a teaspoon.”
Roberts argued that between the time clothing was taken from Dobson’s house in 1993 and its subsequent re-examination by LGC in 2006, there were manifold opportunities for blood and fibres belonging to Lawrence to have made their way onto Dobson exhibits. The evidence-handling system had relied on old paper bags and peeling adhesive tape. Suspect and victim exhibits were sometimes stored in the same room. Furthermore, he said, his client could prove he was at home on the night of 22 April 1993, and had not worn the crucial grey-and-yellow jacket for years. Roberts invited the jury to find Dobson not guilty.
At around 4.15pm, Stephen Batten QC – who represented Neil Acourt in the 1996 trial – stood for Norris. Batten is resolutely oldschool. He still uses the word “motorcar”. A tall man with a leathery face and outsized eyebrows, he arrived every morning accompanied by a pungent smell of tobacco, wore a raggedy wig, and regularly spoke with his left hand behind his back, beating out syncopated rhythms beneath his gown.
That evening, Batten kept his remarks short, and memorable. Having laid out the basic principles of Norris’ defence in his gravelly baritone (he was not in Eltham that night, the jeans and the top belonged to his brother, the scientific evidence is suspect) he asked the jury to look at a picture of the varnish-stained jeans said to have been worn by Norris during the attack.
“What,” he asked, “is the probability, or even possibility, that a self-respecting young man would be out for the evening with his mates in those filthy things?” Two minutes later, the jury were sent home for the day.
The prosecution’s case began with eyewitness accounts. This evidence, they knew, carried no great weight. If eyewitnesses had been able to identify Lawrence’s killers, then there would have been convictions in this case long ago. Indeed, the testimony of those who were at the bus stop on Well Hall Road (two local men and one French au pair) differed markedly. But it amounted to an impressionistic sense of what happened that night: the attack was unprovoked, involved between four and six young white assailants and endured for as little as ten seconds. Only Brooks heard the infamous “What? What nigger?” cry, although another witness, Joey Shepherd, believed one of the attackers “said something” before the gang enveloped Lawrence.
Then, on the morning of Thursday 17 November, the trial caught fire. The Spectator magazine had published a piece by Rod Liddle – GQ‘s Agony Uncle – in which he questioned, in forthright terms, various aspects of the trial’s fairness. The article, “A Vindictive Charade”, appeared to break the court order published at the start of the trial to prevent biased reporting.
It was the timing, as much as the content of Liddle’s article, which proved so incendiary. On the day the Spectator was published, Brooks was due to give evidence. Lawrence’s childhood friend is now a Liberal Democrat councillor, and he arrived that morning with Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, for support. Brooks wore a suit with a blue-and-white checked shirt, a thin goatee and a sombre expression. We would soon learn why.
Before the trial restarted, the judge addressed the jury. First, he ordered them to stay away from the Spectator. And then he spoke to them about Brooks, who was by then already seated in the witness box. Treacy said Brooks’ father had died the previous night, but that he was happy to give evidence as planned. The combination of outrage about Liddle and sympathy for the bereaved witness contributed to a pregnant atmosphere in court that morning.
Under examination from Ellison, Brooks spoke in a percussive tenor. He described the murder in terms that sometimes matched and sometimes contradicted the other eyewitnesses. Brooks, for instance, remembers one of the assailants “coming round the tree, and chasing me” after the attack on Lawrence, which none of the bystanders at the bus stop saw.
When Brooks described running away with Stephen after the attack – and how, after 220 metres, his friend collapsed and died in a pool of his own blood – his testimony became wrought with emotion. At one point, he wept openly. Doreen held her hand over her mouth. A woman in the gallery began to wail. Regathering himself, Brooks said, “I’m OK,” before dissolving into tears again. The judge asked whether he wanted a break. Ellison added, “I can deal with this quite quickly,” but Brooks interrupted him, and banged on the witness box. “No!” he shouted. “I want to say what happened.”
When it came time for Roberts to cross-examine Brooks, he trod with care. There were – plainly and understandably – holes in Brooks’ account, which lesser advocates than he could have driven a tank through. But Roberts seemed wary of scoring a Pyrrhic victory by eviscerating Lawrence’s best friend on the day his father had died, and losing the jury. Nevertheless, Roberts gently picked apart various inconsistencies in Brooks’ evidence, before desisting.
Batten had no such compunction in hauling Brooks over the coals. The two men have history. It was Batten, acting for Neil Acourt, who destroyed Brooks’ credibility in the 1996 private prosecution, leading to the abandonment of the trial. Now, he quizzed him on his description of the murder weapon, his memory of the ages of the attackers, and whether he had adjusted his recollections between two statements he gave in April and September 1993. At times, Batten’s face quivered with outrage. Nevertheless, Brooks stayed composed. As he left the witness box that morning he took a long look at Dobson and Norris. Both had their eyes averted.
By the morning of 21 November, the trial had settled into a familiar rhythm. And, as the prosecution began to take the jury through the “continuity” evidence – that is, the journey of each exhibit from the murder scene to LGC’s laboratories – the press and public’s interest in the case noticeably thinned.
Underwhelming as this evidence appeared, it mattered. The prosecution needed to convince the jury that the seemingly damning evidence found on the defendants’ clothes was the result of contact during the attack on Lawrence. The defence teams would argue that the evidence had arrived there because of contamination. In large part, this duty fell to Roberts, whose cross-examination came first out of the two defence silks, and whose client had more scientific evidence to contest.
Meanwhile, Alison Morgan – Ellison’s junior – took the reins for the prosecution. A petite woman in her early thirties with a commanding alto voice and the purposeful gait of a wind-up toy, she worked through the evidence.
During this phase of the trial, a pattern was established. Morgan would, for instance, lead a police officer through his routine in bagging and tagging Lawrence’s bloodied clothes. He would talk about the brown paper bags used to seal exhibits, and about how they were repackaged and so on. By the time Morgan had finished with a witness, they usually seemed like a solid professional, working within the boundaries of established procedure at the time.
And then Roberts would stand up. By the time he had finished, the same witness seemed like a rank amateur, wantonly spraying blood and fibres around like a burst pipe. When an answer displeased Roberts, he held his lips between his teeth. Often, his shoulders would rise as he cross-examined a witness, and his eyes would narrow – a look I came to understand as signifying “regretful, but true”. After Roberts was satisfied, Batten would stand and, in the early sections of the continuity evidence, address one or two issues that pertained in particular to his client, before sitting again.
In this period, the defence scored some palpable hits. Their general, and effective, argument was this: 1993 was a different era. Back then, forensic science was not so advanced that microscopic blood flakes and fibres were of any evidential use. No one used white plastic suits to examine exhibits. Policemen paid little attention to the detritus on the outside of evidence bags. In this system, the defence argued, cross-contamination of tiny particles could have happened at almost any time.
Occasionally, they staged an ambush. On the afternoon of 24 November, for instance, Roberts cross-examined Adrian Wain – a tall, slight man with a pipsqueak voice, who had been the Met’s chief forensic scientist in this case. In particular, he was challenged on an opinion he had given to a policeman in 1999, about the “deterioration of the packaging”. Wain’s view, noted by the policeman, was devastating: “In the event of alien blood cells being found on a suspect’s clothing in any subsequent examination [Wain] would be unable to rule out the possibility of contamination having occurred at the point of storage.”
Twelve years later, those alien blood cells formed the basis of the case against Dobson. In his closing speech, Roberts would call Wain’s opinion “prophetic”.
During these long days of continuity evidence at the end of November – as the barristers argued at length about the safety of brown paper bags – the jury looked bored, although one or two wrote constantly. The defendants, likewise, kept reams of notes and betrayed little emotion.
Throughout the trial, Dobson and Norris wore the same suits. In his blue three-piece, in which he sometimes stood with his hands thrust in his pockets and his belly straining at the waistcoat, Dobson brought to mind a Fifties bus conductor. Norris, in a grey singlebreasted suit hanging off his tiny frame, and his thick grey tie, looked like he worked at a suburban crematorium. He was fitted with a hearing loop, which he wore – incorrectly – over his head like a set of Walkman headphones.
Quite often, a member of the public would come for a few hours, sit on the front row, and train his eyes on the defendants. Evidently, such an experience was a zoological thrill – real murderers were caged only feet away!
Meanwhile, a hard core of around 20 regular journalists attended most days. No position in the court afforded an uninhibited view of all the key elements – defendants, judge, barristers, jury, family, gallery – but some were better than others. Although it was unspoken, a seating arrangement prevailed, based on precedent and the particular exigencies of our respective media.
The wooden press box, for instance, was good for the shorthand fiends, who liked something to lean on. The Press Association and the BBC’s court reporter took seats on the first row. Behind them were two or three journalists from the Daily Mail, who enjoyed their intimate view of Dobson and Norris. The ITV and other BBC journalists preferred to sit in front of the dock, where they could watch the television screen installed for the defendants. The Times, the Telegraph and Sky News generally sat beneath the public gallery, where the acoustics were bad, but it was easy to pop in and out of court. The Guardian and the Independent flitted between various spots, depending on which reporter was in. I sat in “premium economy”: between defence counsel and the jury, where I could see everything but the defendants’ television, and could stretch out my legs.
At times, I would glance up in pity at the court stenographer – a young man apparently made old by his curious trade. His job was to record everything said in court using a stenotype: a medieval contraption that looks like a small, dense, metal accordion, on which he knocked out 200 words per minute. Everything said in court. The deep bags underneath his eyes seemed to grow darker by the day, as if he were being crushed by the freight of so much verbiage.
One tiny speck of blood. The more evidence was heard in the trial, the more that microscopic bloodstain seemed significant. In order for a jury to be certain Dobson had been present during the attack on Lawrence, they had to be sure that a drop of fresh, wet blood had soaked into the collar of his jacket during the attack on 22 April 1993, and not by some other, entirely innocent, means.
All roads led to and from this bloodstain, even – strangely – the case against Norris. There was little scientific evidence against Norris: seven fibres and a couple of cut hairs. But if the prosecution could prove, through the collar blood, that Dobson had been one of the attackers, then what were the chances that Norris – a member of the same group, whom Dobson had initially denied knowing – was innocent?
Much, then, rested on the performance of Edward Jarman – a bald, meticulous 39-yearold blood specialist at LGC, who gave evidence for more than a day.
The key exchange took place on the morning of 1 December. In cross-examination, Roberts argued that the stain on the collar of the jacket could have been produced accidentally in the LGC laboratory, when the scientists conducted a test for saliva on the jacket. (This procedure was called a Phadebas test, and was misheard often by football lovers in the press box as the “Fabregas test”.)
Phadebas testing involves wetting a garment with a hand-held pump that looks like a garden sprayer, and then pressing down on the exhibit with a heavy sheet of glass. When the scientists at LGC performed this procedure on the grey-and-yellow jacket, they unwittingly did so with around 40 miniscule flakes of dried blood on the jacket. The blood-flakes, argued Roberts, had come from the debris in the evidence bag. Was it not possible – he asked – that one of these flakes of blood was wetted during Phadebas testing, and soaked into the collar?
Roberts, naturally, did not take Jarman’s word for it. He assailed his methodology, and his credentials. Jarman rebutted this assault as best he could, and appeared for the most part unruffled. In conclusion, Roberts led Jarman to the scientist’s written conclusions about the collar stain, in which he said he could not “completely exclude” the possibility that it had been produced by Phadebas testing, as he had not tested every single Lawrence blood flake.
Roberts: It wouldn’t be right to exclude it.
Jarman: We haven’t excluded it.
Roberts: As a scientist, it wouldn’t be right to exclude it.
Jarman: And we haven’t excluded it.
Four days after this high-scoring draw between the defence and the prosecution, Roy Green, LGC’s dogmatic fibres expert, entered the witness box. He was rattled in crossexamination. Roberts asked him, “Isn’t it necessary to know the facts before you postulate?” Batten was even rougher: “You haven’t a clue!”
Indeed, with Green, Batten employed the “Siberia tactic” – reserved only for his least favourite witnesses. Siberia worked as follows: Batten would ask a question, and, while he waited for an answer, look down at his notes in silence and with his eyebrows roller-coastering. At no point would he look at the witness. After some seconds had passed, he would call out the witness’ name without raising his eyes. Eventually, the witness was forced to answer and, given the dramatic build-up, whatever they said felt like a significant concession.
Despite these barristerial sleights, the scientists inched the prosecution forward. The moment that lodged in my memory came during Ellison’s examination of Green on 5 December. Ellison was quizzing the scientist about a number of complex scenarios that might explain the fibres on Dobson’s clothes, when Green replied: “Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the wearer of the jacket was involved in the attack on Stephen Lawrence.” True or not, reliable or not, the experts were giving the jury permission to convict.
The most momentous decisions can be taken with a jury nowhere in sight. Indeed, the greatest battles can be fought over what evidence is, or is not, admissible. In these legal arguments – between barristers, with the jury out and the press forbidden from reporting – a trial may be won or lost.
So it was with Dobson and Norris.
In early December, two legal arguments swung the trial sharply away from the defence. The first concerned Rosalyn Hammond, a scientist from LGC. Hammond’s role was to establish whether any of the new evidence could have arrived on the suspects’ garments by contamination. The prosecution said she “added value”, but her judgments were unlikely to bolster the defence. In a spirited legal argument on the morning of 7 December, Roberts fought for her exclusion.
He argued that Hammond, who was employed by LGC, was neither independent, nor an expert in matters of contamination. Indeed, her appearance would “trespass on the function of the jury”.
“There is a basic principle of natural justice,” he said, “that no one should be a judge in their own cause.”
At the end of a long and unusually impassioned address, Roberts sat down. Batten – who, in other circumstances might have taken the opportunity to dazzle oratorically – was satisfied enough to say only this: “We support Mr Roberts, and, in a sentence, the jury has been sufficiently well educated already.”
Having heard both sides, Treacy retired to consider his ruling. After half an hour, he returned. Hammond’s evidence, he said, was admissible. “To hold otherwise,” he ruled, “would be akin to sending the jury on a long journey without a map.”
That afternoon and the next morning, the scientist duly entered the witness box and demolished a pillar of the defence’s case. For hour after hour, Hammond – a 45-year-old brunette with a small voice and dressed in a sober black suit – explained the steps needed for contamination to have taken place in the case of each finding, from 1993 to 2007. In every case, she said there was “no realistic probability” of contamination.
The second, more significant legal argument, concerned footage from a covert surveillance camera that had been placed by the police in Dobson’s flat on Footscray Road in 1994, 18 months after the murder. “The Footscray footage” – as it became known – shows Dobson and Norris, and their friends, Neil Acourt, Luke Knight and Danny Caetano, using the worst kinds of racist language. It also shows Acourt playing with massive knives, and packing a blade in his trousers. But at no point do the suspects explicitly confess to killing Lawrence.
Before the legal argument began on Monday 12 December, all three silks seemed particularly focused. This, both sides knew, was a big day. If the video was admitted, Dobson and Norris would seem like violent, racist scumbags who associated with knife-brandishing thugs. Juries tend to dislike such people.
The prosecution began with a broad statement of what was in the Footscray footage: “a demonstration of racist views” and “approval of violence towards black people”. Ellison then argued that the principal issue for the jury to consider, once they had made a judgment on the new scientific evidence, was whether these two men “were members of the group which attacked Stephen Lawrence” – and, if so, did they believe one member of the group had the “propensity to cause really serious harm”? The tapes, he argued, would help a jury decide.
Roberts then stood. He appeared tightly wound. “The prosecution, in a very contrived and sophisticated way, are seeking to overburden some simple events that took place in a private dwelling with a probative value that they do not possess,” he said. As well as arguing that the video had no value as evidence – it proved nothing except that these teenagers had been unpleasant people – Roberts also made a wider point about fairness. The material had been broadcast on television in 1997, alongside some “lurid and defamatory headlines” (was he thinking, here, of the Daily Mail‘s “MURDERERS”?). There was, therefore, a danger of “rekindling prejudice” in the jury’s mind if the video were shown in court. At stake, he said, was “the justice of the trial”.
Batten then stood, and invoked GQ‘s Agony Uncle. “We have achieved, in this case, a position where both inside court and outside court, these proceedings are seen to be as fair as is possible, despite the fears of people such as Mr Rod Liddle.” He then “humbly” asked the judge to consider that “almost all the evidence in this trial… is scientific in nature. That’s the evidence that matters.” If the judge allowed the video to be shown, he would “pitch this hitherto demonstrably fair trial into much choppier waters”.
In fact, Treacy did just that. The trial set sail for raging seas.
On the day the Footscray footage was played to the jury, every journalist with a ticket wanted in. After weeks of evidence that had been technical at best, this was a newsworthy moment. Dobson’s legal team had also given strong indications that their client would enter the witness box that afternoon. In terms of newspaper copy, 13 December was a double rollover.
As the video was played, the eyes of many in the courtroom flicked between the defendants and the various television screens. One segment showed Dobson and Acourt discussing an incident at work, in which Dobson threatens a “black c***” colleague who stole his hat.
At one point in the story, the black colleague taps Dobson on the back of the legs to irritate him. Dobson reacts by unsheathing his Stanley knife. “You tap me once more, you silly c***,” he says. “I’m going to just f***ing slice this thing down you.”
More explosive was the footage showing Norris speaking to Acourt.
Norris: If I was going to kill myself do you know what I’d do? I’d go and kill every black c***, every Paki, every copper. Every mug that I know, I’m telling ya… I’d go down Catford and places like that, I’m telling you now, with two sub-machine-guns and I’m telling ya, I’d take one of them, skin the black c*** alive, mate, torture him, set him alight… I’d blow their two legs and arms off and say, “Go on, you can swim home now.”
As this footage was shown, several people in the gallery held a hand over their mouth. Norris blinked rapidly as he watched the “submachine- gun” section. As the worst of his rant was played, he shook his head. Dobson, meanwhile, took a note – as he often did when he felt the eyes of the court on him. Several members of the jury winced as they watched.
After the video was shown, the prosecution closed their case.
That afternoon, the defence – now on the back foot – called Dobson to the witness box. There is no compulsion for a defendant to give evidence, but it would have been strange indeed if Dobson had not. For one thing, the court had just watched him spew racist bile on video. His lawyers were naturally keen that this was not the jury’s ultimate view of their client.
As Dobson was escorted from the dock by two policemen, he passed within inches of the Lawrences. Neville, deeply uncomfortable, did not sit in the same position again. He moved to a spot in front of the dock, where he remained for the rest of the trial. The other members of the family stayed put.
In the box, Dobson cut a solemn figure. Before he began giving evidence, he loosened his tie, and sat with his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer. When he spoke, he did so in the heavy southeast London accent of his upbringing. Swearing the oath, “truth” came out as “troof”.
Roberts immediately addressed the most poisonous evidence – the Footscray footage. Dobson dismissed the Stanley knife incident as “a bit of friendly banter”, which raised a snort from the Guardian correspondent behind me. Asked about his frequent use of the word “nigger”, he said, “I’ve always listened to hip-hop over the years… I used to use that word… It was sort of stereotyping.” Then, seemingly remembering that contrition was in order, he added, “There’s not very much I can say to defend or justify things like this” – a sentiment he repeated throughout his evidence.
Meanwhile, Dobson told the jury that he had been given the grey-and-yellow jacket as a present, when he was nine years old, by a friend of the family. It was too big for him then, but he wore it “once or twice” to school when he was 14, and “had the mickey taken out of me”. He was not, he said, and never had been, a fan of Supertramp.
On the night of the murder, meanwhile, Dobson said he was “indoors… listening to music, playing on me computer”. His parents were having a curry with friends downstairs. He didn’t leave the house until around 11.45pm that night, when he visited Neil and Jamie Acourt at their home at 102 Bournbrook Road on the same estate.
Now this was interesting. When a policeman asked him the same question in the week after the murder, Dobson had omitted to mention his trip to Bournbrook Road. Only when it later became clear that another witness – a local boy named Matthew White – had seen Dobson at the Acourts’ house around midnight, did he change his story.
Roberts now steered his client through this tricky terrain. Dobson said that after his parents’ friends had left, and the adults were in bed, he “pottered about for a short while” before going to the Acourts to “borrow a Bob Marley CD”. Good choice of CD, that.
Jamie and Neil Acourt were downstairs, and he “just stopped in”. Someone rolled a joint, and they “sat in the front room, chatted for a while, and smoked it”. He left a few minutes later. During this time, White knocked on the door. Dobson says he “heard him say something along the lines of, ‘There’s a boy been murdered down Well Hall.'”
Why, asked Roberts, had Dobson not told the policeman this when he was asked where he was that night?
“He asked me where I was at the time of the murder,” said Dobson.
Another anomaly needed straightening out. When Dobson was arrested on 7 May 1993, and interviewed at Bromley police station, he was asked who his best friends were. He named all of them except Norris – whose father was a notorious local criminal (although there may have been other reasons for Dobson’s denial). In any event, Dobson and Norris were friends and had been photographed together outside the Acourts’ house by the police in the days following the murder. Why did he deny knowing him?
“Stupidly,” he said.
Roberts did not press the point. Indeed, he worked fast through the rest of Dobson’s evidence. In summary, Roberts asked him, “Did you have anything to do with the events that led to the death of Stephen Lawrence?”
“No,” Dobson answered, looking at the jury. “I did not.”
When Ellison stood, he asked fast, hard questions. In particular, he addressed Dobson’s language and attitudes in the Footscray footage.
Ellison: If you were walking across Well Hall Road one night, you’d be just as likely to be talking and thinking the same way?
Ellison: When you told the police you weren’t racist, was that a lie?
Ellison then challenged Dobson on why he hadn’t named Norris in his original police interview, but made little headway (Dobson said it was a “silly thing” to do, but not sinister).
He returned to the tapes.
Ellison: Were you accustomed to calling all black people “niggers”?
Dobson: Yeah… I was.
Ellison: All black people were “niggers”?
Dobson: I suppose so. I didn’t see it as such a bad word.
On the footage of Neil Acourt walking around with a knife (which was important for the “joint enterprise” element of the murder charge), Ellison asked Dobson whether he recalled his friend behaving in such a way. Dobson said he couldn’t remember. Ellison tried another tack. Would it have been unusual to see Acourt strolling about the flat with a huge knife? Dobson said he didn’t know, but it was “not something I would do or condone”.
By the end of the day, Dobson had appeared dodgy, but not necessarily homicidal. He returned the next morning – having dispensed with his suit jacket – for more of the same. Ellison asked him again about the footage of Acourt leaving the flat with a knife.
Dobson: It’s clear from the video that it didn’t happen in my presence… For all I know, he could have been going out to do something with the car.
Ellison: The car!
Dobson: I don’t know.
Ellison moved on to the main course. Why had he initially told the police officer he was in all night, when he had visited the Acourts? Why, also, did he say that he had heard about the murder from the papers, when he admitted later that he had been told by White? What was he trying to hide? Dobson parried, but Ellison continued: “You had, I suggest, no honest reason for saying you only read it in the papers.”
As for the jacket, which Dobson said he had not worn since he was 14, but which was hanging in his wardrobe when he was arrested, Ellison told him there was a “problem”: its condition suggested it had been worn heavily. There were cigarette burns, a zipper was missing, and it was generally tired in appearance. Dobson said it had been worn, but not by him.
Ellison: Who’s been wearing it, Mr Dobson?
Dobson: Me mum, me auntie, me brother.
The prosecution concluded with a rally.
Ellison: I suggest to you that you went out with some of your friends… on that night… and you were coming home across Well Hall Road at about 10.30 and you saw, all of you, two black boys on your manor, on the pavement leading to the estate where you lived. That was a real provocation, seeing – as you would put it – two “niggers” on your manor.
Ellison: And you attacked them, didn’t you?
Dobson: Definitely not. Absolutely not.
When Gary Dobson’s parents, Pauline and Stephen, gave evidence, they seemed like upstanding, lower-middle-class white folk. Stephen wore a shirt and a round-neck jumper to court, and would not have been out of place at a suburban golf club. Pauline appeared to be a fussy, doting parent. Their principal role in the witness box was to confirm that Gary – who was 17 at the time of the murder – had been in all night on 22 April 1993, and that he did not wear the grey-and-yellow jacket.
Ellison, however, was able to make some headway. Most importantly, their recollection of when they saw Gary on the night of the murder was sketchy. In particular, Pauline was asked about how she had arrived at the time of 10.30pm – exactly the time of the attack on Lawrence – for when she saw Gary in her kitchen, making tea.
Ellison: Was there, by the time you made your statement, something important about… half past ten?
Pauline Dobson: That night will stay with me forever. I remember where he was.
In her original statement, Pauline had said that she saw Gary in the kitchen at 10.40pm or 10.45pm. Ellison said, “That ten minutes could be very important.” Pauline, somewhat irritated, conceded: “Give or take ten minutes then.” More inconsistencies in the timings emerged with Stephen. However, he insisted that he would have seen his son go out the front door if he had actually done so (although he later conceded that his house had a back door too).
In re-examination, Roberts asked Stephen whether there was any doubt where his son had been between 10pm and 11pm that night. “There’s no doubt,” he said, shortly before being dismissed. On his way to the exit, he nodded to his son in the dock.
Soon, it was the turn of Norris to give evidence. Like Dobson, this would be the first time in 18 years that he had been forced to answer questions under oath. And, on the morning of 15 December, the court teemed with reporters. Norris shambled to the witness box, stood and gave the oath in a dense drawl. Batten started slow.
Batten: Did you have anything to do with the death of Stephen Lawrence?
Norris: No, certainly not, no, sir…
Batten: Were you in Well Hall Road that night?
Norris: No, certainly not…
Batten: Do you know for a fact where you were that night?
Norris: No, sir.
Batten then pulled Norris through his story. The clothes on which Lawrence hairs and fibres had been found were not his, they were his brother’s. In particular, the jeans – which were a 28ins waist, 36ins inside leg – would have been too baggy for him, as he preferred “tightfitting clothes”. Meanwhile, Norris insisted that the Footscray footage showed him at a personal nadir. A year earlier, at the time of the murder, he had been nowhere near as angry and racist, although he may have told “racial jokes”. By 1994, evidently, he was furious. Later, Batten would ask why.
“I got accused… I got accused of a murder, a terrible murder,” said Norris.
Batten also asked his client about the footage of Acourt leaving the flat with a knife in his trousers.
Batten: Was it remarkable?
Norris: To be honest, sir, no.
Batten: Did you have a knife?
Norris: Certainly not. No, sir.
Then, in the most darkly comic episode of the trial, Batten attempted to let Norris explain a complicated story he had told in one passage of the Footscray footage. The anecdote related – in repulsive language – a fight that had taken place between Norris and two other men, one of whom was black. When it became unclear who was doing what to whom, the judge interjected.
Treacy: Sorry… is this “the c*** you kneed in the b******s”?
Norris: Yes, I believe it was, sir.
After Batten was seated, and Roberts satisfied on a minor point, Ellison stood and took aim at Norris. During this cross-examination – in which Norris was subjected to a sustained bombardment of common sense – the momentum of the trial seemed to turn irrevocably towards the prosecution.
Why, asked Ellison, was Norris so sure he was not in Eltham on the night of the murder? Although he lived a few miles away in Chislehurst, he had admitted he was in the habit of visiting the Acourts in Eltham. Why not that night?
Norris: I’m an innocent man.
Ellison: Is it possible you were in the Eltham area [on the night of 22 April]?
Ellison: How do you know?
Norris: Because I’m innocent.
A juror smiled at Norris’ knight-move logic.
Ellison: I suggest that although you are adamant you weren’t involved in this murder, you could well have been in Eltham that night.
Norris: I don’t believe so, sir… I would have remembered.
He was then asked how fibres matching Lawrence’s clothes, and hairs matching his DNA, were found on clothes that were taken from his bedroom in Chislehurst. To be fair to Norris, this was somewhat out of his comfort zone. He looked as if he had trouble tying his shoelaces, let alone analysing DNA evidence. But, gamely, he attempted an answer.
Ellison: Is there any innocent explanation [for the hairs and fibres]?
Norris: Nothing at all.
Ellison asked Norris about his racist attitudes on tape. His views on black people were, he said “immature”. His violent attitudes were, he suggested, a part of his upbringing.
Norris: Like I said, sir, I grew up in London; you learn to look after yourself. I’m not suggesting for one minute that I was some sort of angel. I wasn’t. But does that make me a murderer? I’m not capable of murder, sir.
In conclusion, Ellison suggested to Norris that the truth was, “You and your mates attacked that young black boy that night.”
“No, sir,” he replied. “Absolutely not, sir.”
Batten did what he could in re-examination, but his client’s case may already have been holed beneath the water line. And it was about to hit another iceberg. That afternoon, his mother, Teresa – a brassy blonde in her fifties – disintegrated under cross-examination from Ellison. She maintained that David, who was 16 at the time of the murder, would have been at home that night, but appeared to have little support for this claim.
Ellison: Are you saying that every single weekday, he would have been home by that time?
Teresa Norris: Yes… I have a routine.
Ellison suggested this was the first time “there had been a breath” of this alibi, and that it was a “recent invention”. Mrs Norris insisted that because 22 April 1993 was a school night, David would have been at home, like his younger siblings. But, Ellison countered, David had left school by April 1993. Why would he have needed to be back at the house?
“My son would have been at home,” said Teresa – not for the first, or last, time.
In the week before Christmas, the trial entered its final throes. With both sides having submitted their evidence, it was time for the silks to deliver their closing speeches. Between Tuesday 20 December and Thursday 22 December, the leading barristers were offered a day each to make their final mark on the jury.
On the last day of court business before Christmas, Batten gave a remarkable speech. He addressed “the elephant” in the room – his client’s trial by media – and invoked the history of the court. He asked that before the jury left the Old Bailey, they should visit a plaque on the first floor, in memory of the jury in the Penn and Meade trial of 1670, in which two Quakers were charged with “unlawful assembly”. Before the jury retired in that case, the judge said they would “not be dismissed until we have a verdict that the court will accept”. The jury, nevertheless, acquitted the men. The judge ordered them to retire again to find a more satisfactory verdict – during which time they were given no food, heat or water. Still, the jury refused to find the defendants guilty.
“They were resisting the Church, the State and, quite possibly, public opinion,” said Batten. “There wasn’t a Daily Mail in those days of course… Conscience is nothing without objectivity. They kept theirs, and we encourage you to keep yours. Because if you do, your conscience will never bother you.”
And then, with a wolfish grin, Batten said, “Well, that’s enough Christmas cheer.”
Between 28 and 30 December, a miserable-looking court reconvened for the judge’s summing up. R v Dobson and Norris was the only trial sitting in the Old Bailey in this chilly interval, and, in the spirit of Penn and Meade, the building’s heating had been turned off and the cafeteria closed.
In Treacy’s eight-hour closing address to the jury, he not only reiterated the evidence in the case, but instructed them on the steps needed to find both defendants guilty or not guilty. In particular, he said that they must only consider the implications of the Footscray footage once they had discounted contamination as an explanation for the new scientific evidence.
The jurors were dismissed on the afternoon of 29 December. They returned at 2.30pm on 3 January – the first working day of 2012 – having spent less than nine hours considering their verdict.
Once the Tannoy had broadcast that afternoon – instructing all parties in Dobson and Norris to return to Court 16 – there was an almighty rush for seats. It took several minutes to settle everyone. Every result seemed possible. On the back row of the teeming public gallery, the Dobson family held hands. Next to them, Norris’ brother Clifford gave a thumbs-up to the dock. There were three extra policemen on duty in the well of the court, and three in the gallery.
After a long wait, the jury filed in, and the rituals unfolded at high speed. The clerk asked the defendants, and then the foreman, to stand. She asked the young man with the two-day beard if he had reached a verdict in both cases. He had. The court heard the jury’s decisions in silence – or near silence.
In the first seconds after the verdicts were announced, I listened to, but heard nothing, from the public gallery. Not yet. The room was still strangely calm. Dobson shook his head. Norris nodded once. And then a moan. Was that Dobson’s mother? The sound of crying from somewhere. It grew louder.
Doreen was out of my line of sight. I heard, afterwards, that she wept silently during the verdict. Neville, meanwhile, sat stock still. His hand did not move from the side of his face, where it had been placed before the verdict. After a few beats, a single tear rolled down his cheek. His chest rose sharply. The moaning in the gallery grew louder. Dobson continued to shake his head. Noise began to build.
Those first seconds after the verdict was announced – before the first news story was filed; before all kinds of victories were proclaimed; when it was just two damned men in a dock – reminded me of the aftermath of a city-centre bomb. The explosion, and then the moments of hissing hush as people understand what has happened, and then the wild cries as they comprehend their luck, bad or good.
Before the judge rose, there was a commotion in the gallery that cut through the febrile chatter now filling the courtroom. The defendants’ families were asked by a policeman to “cool down”, and were led outside. One of their number – a woman, I could not tell who – shouted, “He’s innocent! He did not kill that man!”
A few minutes later, as the two freshly convicted murderers were taken down to the cells, Dobson had his own message for the court.
“You’ve condemned an innocent man today,” he said. “I hope you can all live with that.”
On 4 January, Dobson was sentenced to at least 15 years and two months in prison. Norris received a minimum sentence of 14 years and three months. Before handing down sentences, the judge called the attack on Stephen Lawrence “a terrible and evil crime”.