The trial and subsequent sentencing of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 closes one chapter in a story that has, and will continue to have, a profound and dramatic impact on policing and society.
The concerns that have been raised by the death of the Stephen Lawrence, the following police enquiry and the recent court proceedings are multitude and many issues, both positive and negative, have been brought out and laid bare before the public. From claims of institutional racism in the police force, to the failings of the initial enquiry; the persistence of the family in bringing justice for their son, to the diminishing likelihood of the others that were involved being apprehended and brought to justice are but some of the issues which have been highlighted by the case.
As a criminal defence solicitor, one further issue that is of particular interest regards the case itself and why Messrs Dobson and Norris received sentences which, in the light of current sentencing policy, would seem to be lenient.
The Judge presiding over the proceedings, Mr Justice Treacy, addressed this in comments made during the sentencing hearing. It was acknowledged that, had the murder been committed today, the pair could expect a life sentence; with a minimum term of around 30 years, aggravated by the use of the knife in the matter coupled with the racist nature of the unprovoked attack.
The Learned Judge, however, acknowledged that by law he must pass sentence by reference to the age and maturity of the defendants at the time of the crime. By this, therefore, the mature adults appearing before the court were sentenced as though they were aged 17 years and 10 months in Dobson’s case and 16 years and 8 months in Norris’ case. As such, the two have been sentenced to life imprisonment, but with parole considered after 14 years and three months and 15 years and two months respectively.
The high profile and emotive nature of the murder of Stephen Lawrence has sparked the attention of the public and there are those who now question whether it was fair to sentence those responsible as juveniles. The argument goes that those who have sought to avoid or evade justice have ultimately benefited from such actions, as has the protracted and prolonged investigation resultant on denial.
There is no right or wrong answer, merely a further matter arising from this most tragic case.