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Stephen Lawrence's dad: Threats caused me to live in Jamaica in secret for 10 years

Father reflects on 1993 race murder of his son

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 19, 2012    

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LONDON, England — Neville Lawrence still recalls every detail of that fateful day — April 22, 1993 — when he received the devastating news that his then 18-year-old son had been attacked and stabbed to death by a gang of white racists, while the young man and a friend waited for a bus at Eltham in south east London.

Although he finally got justice for the murder of his son Stephen, almost 20 years ago, Lawrence now painfully acknowledges that this was the price his first born had to pay for race relations to be transformed in the United Kingdom. And, despite the legislative changes which have come because of his strident campaigning, this father still wishes it was not his son who had to pay such a terrible price.

Lawrence recounted for the Jamaica Observer, during a recent interview here, the last words he exchanged with his son.

He said three months before his son's death, he had a dream in which a guy was about to attack him with a knife. So disturbed was he by the dream that on the day of Stephen's murder, he told his son to hurry home.

"My last words to my son were 'don't go anywhere, come straight home', and I went about preparing his dinner; but he didn't come," Lawrence said, his voice fading with pain.

Today, that pain is lessened only by the justice this family received earlier this year in a landmark court ruling which saw two of Stephen's murderers — Gary Dobson and David Norris — being retried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 15 and 14 years respectively.

"The last trial took place in a courtroom next to where the first trial took place, and I remember just closing my eyes and praying, 'don't let it be a repeat', and when I heard the verdict it was like I could finally breathe," Lawrence said.

But this was not before Lawrence received death threats that forced him to return to Jamaica where he lived in secrecy over the past 10 years, and also not before his marriage to Doreen became a casualty when the strain of their son's death became too much for the couple's relationship to survive.

The couple had made it their lifelong mission to expose the police for failing, for weeks, to arrest the suspects, despite being given five names within hours of the killing.

Their effort at a private prosecution after the Crown Prosecution Service said there was not enough evidence to charge the gang failed. But their hopes were lifted after a public inquiry concluded that the police were institutionally racist and recommended the scrapping of the double jeopardy legal principle which prevented suspects being tried twice for the same crime.

This is what led to the subsequent retrial and conviction of the men after new DNA evidence was presented last year.

Lawrence recalled that shortly after Stephen's death, his family was the lone voice crying in the wilderness for justice, as the media failed to report on his son's killing. He said it took the visit of Nelson Mandela to the UK and his request to meet with Stephen Lawrence's bereaved parents, for the authorities to take notice.

"It was only after that, did the media become interested in Stephen's case," he said.

Lawrence said he and Doreen later became two of the most hated people in London, and he was urged to take several precautions because of the hatred which was directed towards them after they took on the police and started a private prosecution of their son's killers.

"My family was one of the most hated families for several years, and so even when I went to the train station, I couldn't even stand near the edge (of the platform) for fear that someone would try to push me over," he said.

Lawrence said the death threats came years later after he began speaking up for a black female teacher who had been beaten.

"The next week the message came to a radio station that they would kill me and the woman, and so two police officers were sent to get me to the airport," he said.

But despite the threats and biases, and even the desecration of a plaque which was placed at the site where Stephen was killed, the Lawrences were determined to not only get justice for their son's death, but to change the way the police treat racist murders in that country.

"I told myself that even in my grave I would be fighting, because if it was my son who had killed somebody he wouldn't be out there walking around," Lawrence said.

He expressed satisfaction that he was in Parliament to witness the passing of amendments to the double jeopardy law.

But as relieved as he is to get justice, Lawrence is still unable to come to grips with the senseless murder of the son who was well on his way to living his father's dream of becoming an architect.

"My boy was such a gentle person, he would not kill a fly. He was a young, innocent boy standing at a bus stop and they just kill him because he was black," he said.

And despite trusts, buildings and organisations being named in Stephen's honour, and his mother being invited to carry the Olympic flag during the recently concluded Games, Lawrence would trade it all to have his son back.

The senior citizen, who now gives talks at universities on gang culture, etc, said he often finds himself imagining what his son would have become had he lived.

"When I go to the universities my thoughts sometimes stray and I said I wish he was there among the students to see his dreams fulfilled," he said.

Lawrence said he took his son's body to Jamaica for burial because of how much the youngster fell in love with the island during his many visits, as well as the fact that concerns were raised that people would desecrate his grave if he was buried here. Now, even the location of his grave has been kept a secret.

"As I got back to Jamaica after the trial I went to his grave and told him we have finally made a headway," Lawrence said.

He lives now with only one regret — his decision to go back to the UK, having returned to Jamaica five years after he first migrated.

He believes the writing was on the wall from back then that he was existing in a dangerously racist society.

Recalling those early days when he first migrated in 1960, Lawrence said it was a common occurrence for black people to be called 'monkey' and 'nigger'.

"When I first came here, people wouldn't sit beside us on buses and when we work hard and buy a car they say Government is giving us money," he said.

"But I am happy I am back in Jamaica and that is where I will stay," he added, smiling for the first time during the interview.

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