Stephen Lawrence's killers Gary Dobson and David Norris

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

  • Published
Gary Dobson and David Norris (right)
Image caption,
Gary Dobson and David Norris have always denied murdering black teenager Stephen Lawrence

Gary Dobson and David Norris have been found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager stabbed to death by a gang of white youths at a London bus stop in 1993.

The pair have spent their entire adult lives denying any involvement in one of the most high-profile unsolved cases in British history. So who are they?

To the British public, Gary Dobson and David Norris have come to be defined by the death of Stephen Lawrence.

They were among five white youths from Eltham in south-east London arrested shortly after the 18-year-old was killed there.

Dobson, who was 17 at the time and attending a college, lived with his parents and younger sister on the nearby Brook Estate.

Norris, the one member of the close-knit group who wasn't based on or near the estate, lived with his mother in Chislehurst, another part of south-east London.

He had met one of the group - Jamie Acourt - through a football team they played for aged 14, and was introduced to the others through him.

He was 16 and had left school when Stephen died.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in the late 1990s, which looked into the teenager's death and the subsequent police investigation, cited evidence from locals that portrayed the group as aggressive youths who regularly intimidated people they came into contact with - often with knives and threats.

Much of this intimidation was due to their connection to Norris's father, Clifford, a convicted drug smuggler who was on the run in 1993 but later served an eight-year prison term for drugs and firearms offences.

Image caption,
David Norris and Gary Dobson both said the vilification they encountered made them angry men

"Police officers told us that they believed that the influence or fear of Clifford Norris infected the investigation of the murder, in that potential young witnesses or young people in possession of information held back because they knew of Clifford Norris' existence and close interest in his son's welfare," states the report from the inquiry, which was presided over by retired judge Sir William Macpherson.

A BBC documentary broadcast in July 2006, called The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence, contained the allegation that Clifford Norris bribed a detective involved in the investigation into Stephen's murder, although a subsequent investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded that the claims were unfounded.

At the time of Stephen's death, Eltham was an ethnically polarised area where racist tension bubbled under the surface of suburban life, occasionally coming to the fore in the form of verbal insults, graffiti or - at its most extreme - violence.

"It should be recorded that racist crime and violence were not new to the district. Both Eltham and Thamesmead had bitter experience of such crime by 1993," the Macpherson report stresses, before citing examples of racially charged flashpoints.

Their reputation as local aggressors meant Dobson, Norris and their friends were prime suspects after Stephen's death.

Police surveillance of their homes began four days after the killing and the five were arrested, with two charged.

But the Crown Prosecution Service felt there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, and the charges were dropped in 1993.

A year after Stephen's death, secret surveillance footage filmed in Dobson's Eltham flat captured the men's hate-filled racist outlook on life.

In the 1994 video, which was shown to the Old Bailey jury in the 2011 murder trial, Norris was heard to say: "I would go down Catford and places like that I am telling you now, with two sub-machine guns."

Using extremely racist and sexually explicit language, he said he would take a black person, torture them, skin them alive and set them alight.

"I would blow their two arms and legs off and say 'go on, you can swim home now'. They would be bobbing around like that."

He also shared an anecdote about beating up a black man, thought to be in his 60s, in a park following an argument.

The surveillance footage "showed violent racism at its worst," concluded Sir William Macpherson.

His 1999 report refers to the five suspects as being "infected and invaded by gross and revolting racism".

During the trial at the end of last year, Norris, now 35, told the court he was "ashamed" of his behaviour in the video.

Dobson, 36, also said he was "disgusted and embarrassed" by the racist language he used in the video.

Image caption,
Mr Lawrence was attacked by a group of white youths in south-east London

Three years after Stephen's death, a private prosecution was brought by the Lawrence family, but the case collapsed and Dobson, Neil Acourt and Luke Knight were acquitted of murder.

The case against Norris and Jamie Acourt collapsed before reaching court.

Despite the acquittal and collapse, the group accused of killing the teenager struggled to free themselves from the cloak of suspicion.

Perhaps the most famous of example of this was a Daily Mail front page in 1997 which openly flouted libel laws.

Featuring images of the five suspects, the newspaper carried the headline "murderers", under which it stated: "The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." Later all five went on television to deny any involvement in the murder.

The vilification of the suspects in some quarters was sharply brought into focus in 1998 after they appeared at the Lawrence Inquiry.

During an outpouring of public contempt, the men were jostled, spat at and targeted with bottles, prompting them to spit and throw punches in retaliation.

At the 2011 Old Bailey trial, both Dobson and Norris admitted becoming angry men who had grown to resent the world after being spat at and verbally abused on a regular basis by members of the public who saw them as murderers.

In 2010, Dobson began a five-year jail term for drug dealing after he admitted supplying a class B drug.

Similarly, Norris, an unmarried father-of-five, has lived on the wrong side of the law.

In 2002, he was jailed for a racist attack in which he threw a drink and shouted racial abuse at a black police officer.

Two years later, just months after his release, he was sentenced to 13 months behind bars for a pub burglary and handling a stolen vehicle.

The defence told the court in that case that Norris had been unable to find employment since being arrested in the Lawrence murder inquiry.

Describing his client as "depressed" and "paranoid", Norris's barrister called the burglary an impulsive offence by a man "without any realistic means of particularly well remunerated work".

Double jeopardy change

In September 2010, 17 years after Stephen's death, Dobson and Norris were arrested and charged with murder, following the Court of Appeal's decision that fresh forensic evidence warranted a trial.

The 2011 trial was the second occasion in which Dobson appeared at the Old Bailey in connection with the murder.

In the past this could not have happened, because of the double jeopardy rule which prevented a suspect being tried a second time for a crime.

But the law was changed in 2003 to allow the prosecution to apply to quash an acquittal if a court was satisfied that there was new and compelling evidence to be put before a jury.

And, with the emergence of new forensic evidence that appeared to link them to the crime, they took to the stand in an attempt to disprove any connection to a killing that came to define their lives. This time they failed to convince the jury.

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