May 2011 articles archive:

Stephen Lawrence - 18 years on.

The Court of Appeal have allowed Dobson's acquittal to be quashed because of new and substantial evidence.

Stephen Lawrence, an 18 year old black teenager was brought up in South East London.  On 22nd April 1993 he was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths,  The attack was unprovoked and violent. During the summer of that year five white men were arrested in connection with the murder. Charges against two of the men were dropped as the CPS said there was insufficient evidence against them. At the end of 1993 the inquest is stopped when lawyers for the family say they have new evidence that would allow a trial to take place.

In the Spring of the following year the CPS say the new evidence referred to by the family is insufficient to prosecute. Later that year Stephen's mother and father start a private prosecution against the suspects. The private prosecution of Neil Acourt, Luke Knight and Gary Dobson collapsed three years after the death of Stephen Lawrence.

The inquest into Stephen's death returned a verdict of unlawful killing in February 1997. In the following month the Police Complaints Authority said it would hold an investigation into the handling of the investigation and in July 1997 the Home Secretary announced that a judicial inquiry into the killing and headed by Sir William Macpherson, would be held.  The intention was to identify issues in police handling of racially motivated crimes that needed to be addressed.

The PCA concluded that although there had been weaknesses and omissions in the investigation but that there had been no evidence of racist conduct.

The Macpherson inquiry saw evidence of the suspects brandishing knives and expressing violent racist views.  The inquiry accused the police of "institutional racism". The inquiry went on to make 70 recommendations which included reforms to race relations law and the obligation for the police and other public bodies to positively promote racial equality.

Assistant Police Commissioner Ian Johnston apologised for letting down the Lawrence family and for supporting the way in which the inquiry into Stephen's murder was conducted.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon also apologised to the family of Stephen Lawrence for the failure of the police but denied the accusation that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist.

Further investigations by the media uncovered allegations of police corruption in the investigation of Stephen's death and in December 2009 a retired constable and a member of police staff were arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice in relation to the non-disclosure of material.

With such a backdrop the name Stephen Lawrence and the anguish the family have felt has never been far from our thoughts. Now,18 years on, on the 18th May 2011 the Court of Appeal concluded that there was enough new and substantial evidence to allow Dobson's acquittal to be quashed. The trial of Mr Dobson and Mr Norris will take place in November 2011.

In April 2005 Parliament scrapped the legal principle of double jeopardy. This prevented suspects being tried a second time for a crime following an acquittal.

It is because of this relatively new legislation and the fact that the judges believe that there is new and compelling evidence that there will be a fresh trial and perhaps closure for the Lawrence family at last.




Sentencing - the debate goes on.

Both the current government and the labour government before it have tried to find the right type of sentence to deal appropriately with the victim and the criminal.

Consecutive governments have debated and agonised over the sentencing of criminals.  The sentence has to be seen to be correct in that it provides justice for the victims and reduces the chances of the criminal re-offending, the public have a right to feel safe on the streets and in their own homes.  There is also the question of cost involved in keeping a criminal in jail.

This month, in particular, seems to have brought the issue of sentencing to the forefront of everyone's minds. 

At the start of the month draft guidelines were published by the Sentencing Council. The guidelines cover the offences of domestic burglary, non-domestic burglary and aggravated burglary and in order to be more consistent when sentencing a single framework for the Crown Court and the Magistrates' courts has been introduced.  The guidelines ask judges to look at the harm caused to the victim as well as the guilt of the accused.

The Burglary Offences Guideline looks at aggravated burglary, domestic burglary and non-domestic burglary. Sentences for domestic burglary would increase from four to six years under the guidelines.

The chairman of the Sentencing Council Lord Justice Leveson said: ‘Burglary can have a very serious impact on victims – it is very far from being only a crime against property.

'As a result, we have ensured that the impact on victims is at the centre of considerations about what sentence should be passed on a burglar.’

He said: ‘The guideline does not reduce the severity of sentences being given to those convicted of burglary. Rather, it reinforces current sentencing practice that burglars targeting people’s homes can expect a custodial sentence.’

Within days of listening to the feedback on this on the radio and in the papers we hear Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary on the radio referring to the Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle Effective Punishment and in particular about the proposed halving of  jail terms for people who plead guilty early, including rapists.

In the Green Paper it states 'We want to ensure that defendants are encouraged to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity by reducing the sentence given for an early guilty plea (the “sentence discount”). We are considering whether this could be better achieved by introducing a maximum discount of up to 50 per cent that would be reserved for those who plead guilty at the earliest stage.'

The media in its' wisdom has picked up on the issue of 'rapists' and the fact that Mr Clarke seemed to categorise rape into degrees of seriousness causing an outcry amongst the public. In the furore the gist of the Green Paper has been lost and the ability to discuss the proposals have diminished.

David Cameron, Prime Minister, told MPs in question time that rape was "one of the most serious crimes that there is and it should be met with proper punishment" and the "real disgrace" was that only 6% of reported rape cases ended in a conviction.

He said there was already a plea bargaining system in the UK and the government was only consulting on whether to extend it - and had not yet decided what crimes it should include.

The Burglary Offences Guidelines is open to public consultation from the 12th May to the 4th August 2011. The consultation on the Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle ended on 4th March 2011.

The debate will go on but it is important that the debate remains focussed on the issues in question and not side tracked by personalities wanting to 'gain points'.



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