OPINION: Neville Lawrence speaks out
I HAD not been this nervous since watching my son come into the world, which is prophetic because Neville Lawrence [father of murdered son Stephen] had come into the BBC London studios to tell me about the circumstances that led to his first born, leaving the world.
There was so much I wanted to know. How did it feel when there was finally a conviction? Why had he left England to live in Jamaica? Why had it not worked out between him and Doreen?
Much of the story of these ordinary people placed in an extraordinary situation is well known and well documented.
On April 22, 1993, while waiting at a bus stop with his friend, Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence was killed by a group of racist thugs.
The 19-year fight for justice marked its first victory on January 3, 2012, when Gary Dobson and David Norris were found guilty of his murder.
I was keen to hear the story behind the story.
Brought up by his white Jewish grandmother, Neville Lawrence is a tall, striking man but much different to the man I had met 15 years earlier. Though still handsome, the years had visibly taken their toll.
He explained that he had experienced many difficult moments with the media and had grown distrustful. He was glad to see me, he said. He trusted me. No pressure then.
I asked how it had felt when the jury returned a guilty verdict.
He said: “I didn’t know I’d ever be sitting in a court waiting for a verdict to do with the death of my son because it’s been 19 years. It is like when you dive under the water and you hold your breath and come up for air."
“I just shut my eyes when the judge asked the jury the question ‘have you come to a verdict?’ When they said ‘yes’ followed by ‘guilty’, tears just started to fall out of my eyes. I had to hide my face because there were so many journalists in there I didn’t want them to see me crying. It was like a weight I was carrying on my shoulder for 19 years just raised up.”
I remember that day well – there are very few times when everything stops in a busy newsroom.
Then there was a shout: “Phone this guest, phone those people, get a quote from him, what does so and so think. Eddie you are going to have to go on air now”.
The story of Stephen Lawrence and the [eventual and subsequent] convictions was that big.
It is the story that changed Britain. The McPherson report branded the police institutionally racist. The Lawrence’s quiet dignity and steely determination won them endless support.
That was not always the case.
Neville recalled: “In the early days we felt as if we were the criminals."
“We weren’t told exactly what happened that night. When we asked questions we were told ‘we can’t tell you that.’ We then found out later on that there were fears we were going to instigate a riot."
“We are not that kind of people. Everything we have done over the last 19 years has always been in the courts – not outside in the street fighting and throwing bottles.”
Had they ever thought of taking matters into their own hands?
“No,” he replied as he explained he always believed the truth would come out in the end."
“You might escape from man, but you cannot escape from God. I was even thinking it might not happen in my lifetime, so I’m pleased to be able to sit here and talk to you about some justice.”
As our conversation warmed up, I asked Neville about the rumours that he and Doreen had never liked Duwayne Brooks.
He said: “One of the things that bothered me in the early days was that Dwayne was with Stephen that night but he was never able to come and sit down and tell us in person what happened."
“In my mind it was like he had run away and it was my son who got killed."
“When I heard his evidence for the first time, I ended up in hospital because a blood vessel burst in my nose. I heard Dwayne explain the cry Stephen made when the knife went into his chest and I just pictured myself being there."
“When you look at Dwayne he’s still traumatised. He is not the person he used to be.”
Possibly, one of the saddest things about the family’s fight for justice was the breakdown of Neville and Doreen’s marriage.
BOND: After the interview
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Neville confessed how Stephen’s death was like a wall between them.
He said: “They say you always hurt the one you love and the dialogue between me and my ex-wife was never there to deal with the tragedy we faced. We never asked each other how we felt. I dealt with the death of my son in a different way to my wife. I started thinking maybe she was not sorry. Big mistake.”
Neville said he knew the marriage was over when he left for Jamaica on doctor’s advice because he was at risk of a nervous breakdown.
Before he returned to London, he received a letter from Doreen requesting a separation.
“When I came back the conversation didn’t go as I wanted it to go”, he said.
I asked if he still wished he was married. “Yes, I do.”
Do you miss her? “Of course I do.”
What’s your relationship with her like now? “Not too bad. I was angry that we had to separate I didn’t feel good about the situation that we had to separate; and it took me a little while to accept that people have to do what they need to do to survive.”
Do you accept that that’s what she needed to do to survive? “I thought the both of us could survive together if we had put our minds to it and come out the other side together.”
I am keen to know how he feels about Eltham now.
“Even before Stephen’s death when I used to go through Eltham I could feel a different atmosphere from the place where I lived in Woolwich.
“I couldn’t explain what it was, like an eerie feeling as if you were not welcome and even today if you drive down Well Hall Road you can still feel that atmosphere."
“I think after the death of Stephen there were people on the street saying Brixton for black people and Eltham for white and there’s a line that you don’t cross and I don’t know how much that has changed.”
The local MP Clive Efford, who was a councillor in the area when Stephen was killed, says Eltham is a very different place. The BME population was 6 percent but is now nearly 34 percent.
I ask Neville if he has ever visited Stephen’s memorial.
“I don’t like to go there, I’ve been a few times, but it’s too much for me to take in. I can’t face the fact to know that’s where my son took his last breath.”
In last August’s riots Eltham was again in the news when for three nights the far right English Defence League (EDL) and supporters of local football teams Charlton Athletic and Millwall gathered in the area.
Though the police were involved in skirmishes the event is something that is described as “minor” by the Borough Commander Chief Superintendent Richard Wood.
Speaking about the trial Neville continued: “When he (Dobson) finished giving his evidence he walked past me, the look that the boy gave me, if that look could kill, I wouldn’t be here talking to you here today, you could see the hatred. Even after all these years, it was still there. No remorse. Nothing to say that I’m sorry for what I’ve done, the damage that they’ve done to my family. If you teach your children hate that is what they carry.”
I ask him if he has danced yet. He laughs long and hard.
“That was one of the promises I made to myself that I would never dance again until someone was doing time for the death of my son. I did dance. I feel a lot more myself now.”
The judge, the evidence and the witnesses suggest there were others. Did he have a message for them? “There are others out there that we need to get to. If one of those people who are now doing time for the death of my son knows where that knife is and decides to give it up I feel that we will get maybe two or three more inside the dock and so that’s what my appeal is for them.”
After the interview and full of nervous tension I drove to Well Hall Road. I had up until that point never got out of my car in Eltham. I took a deep breath. This was the road where Stephen was stabbed, in an area which was infamous. I took a deep breath.
There are flowers and messages around a plaque which has been damaged so many times there is now a CCTV camera and often a police car stationed nearby. There is also, strangely, a copy of The Voice pinned to the nearby tree. I paid my respects and left.
It was clear to me then that we are nowhere near the end of the story. When the news came through that Dobson and Norris were challenging their convictions I fear no one in the Lawrence family was surprised. And that this family have more of a burden to bear. God bless them.
See next week’s Voice for an exclusive interview with Doreen Lawrence