Trials and tribulations

The Damilola Taylor trial was about politics, not justice.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘Damilola denied final justice’, reads the front-page headline of The Times (London) on 26 April 2002, reporting the acquittal of the final two suspects in the murder trial of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor.

But this trial was never about justice. It was about politics. Politicians, commentators and the police jumped upon Damilola’s grave to promote their own messages, and in the circus that ensued, it is not so surprising that justice turned into farce.

Nigerian-born Damilola Taylor was killed on 27 November 2000, on the way to his home on the north Peckham estate, south London. He was stabbed with a glass bottle and subsequently bled to death. This brutal killing was enough, in itself, to provoke a reaction. But it happened against a backdrop of concern about racially motivated killing, and the police’s failure to deal with it.

Damilola’s death came at a time of heightened sensitivity to police racism, sparked by the publication, in 1999, of the Macpherson report on the inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in 1993. After a long, tortuous investigation, attempts to prosecute white youths for his murder collapsed. The inquiry into the police’s failure to indict anybody for Lawrence’s murder laid the blame squarely at the feet of the police – who, it was argued, were suffering from a kind ‘institutional racism’ that caused them to de-prioritise the murder of a young black man (1).

This was the context in which the investigation into Damilola’s death began. As Sandra Laville puts it in the Daily Telegraph, ‘The Metropolitan Police wanted to prove it had learned lessons; it must be seen to take the death of a black child seriously and deliver convictions to prove it’ (2). The investigation was showered with money, resources and publicity – a £2.8million inquiry involving 120 officers. There was never any suggestion of reluctance, on the part of the police, to find and prosecute Damilola’s killers.

But this time, it was the police’s desperation to prove that they had, indeed, ‘learned lessons’ that was their downfall. In late 2001, four teenagers were finally put on trial for the murder. As the court case began to unfold, it became evident that the police had stopped at nothing to nail the accused – using techniques that were flawed almost to the point of illegality.

The main emblem of this was the much-publicised interrogation of a 14-year-old white girl from the North Peckham estate, the prosecution’s star witness (referred to as Witness Bromley). In numerous attempts to obtain a statement from her, she lied consistently and changed her story. Showered with attention and other ‘perks’ ranging from a mobile phone to presents to promises of free holidays, she was effectively told that, if she said she had been at the scene of the crime, she would gain a reward of £50,000 – and she changed her story accordingly (3). This all came out during the court case, and resulted in the judge’s decision to exclude her evidence, and the acquittal of two of the four defendants.

Motivated by a political desire to show that they were not racist, the police’s desperate investigation only succeeded in making them look opportunistic and incompetent. This opened the way for profound questions to be raised about the criminal justice system as a whole, and the distinction between adults and children. The 14-year-old girl was originally questioned under Home Office approved guidelines designed not to pressurise children (4); yet when these failed to solicit the required response, she was subject to no end of pressure and incentives.

She appeared on the stand in an adult court – and then the judge threw out her evidence on the grounds that it was not credible. While this is no doubt true, this surely raises broader questions about the credibility of child witnesses in general. And given that much of the girl’s evidence was clearly not credible, why could an adult jury not be trusted to come to that conclusion itself?

The reaction to the accused killers also highlights the tension in today’s society about how the line should be drawn between adults and children. The two boys who were acquitted yesterday – legally known as Child A and Child B – were 14 years old at the time of Damilola’s death. Yet they are treated, particularly in the UK press, as dangerous, sophisticated criminals who hold a reign of terror over the North Peckham estate.

‘The new Krays’, screams the Sun, alluding to the notorious East End gangsters of London’s past. ‘The two 16-year-olds lead a gang who rule South London estates through fear, intimidation, robbery and protection rackets.’ (5) Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, describes them as ‘A growing feral tribe that should terrify us all’ (6).

There seems little doubt that these young men are a nasty piece of work. But it says something about the confusion within society today, that we can mourn the tragic death of a 10-year-old, apply legal measures designed not to intimidate 14-year-olds, yet imbue other 14-year-olds with the motivations, passions and comprehension of their actions that we associate with hard-core, adult criminals. We want, it seems, to have it both ways – yet as the fiasco of the Damilola Taylor trial shows, the result is negative all round.

Beyond the legal confusions surrounding the trial, the Damilola story has also become a moral fable for our times, designed to bring out everything about modern society that we feel uncomfortable with. Max Hastings’ fear is not of a ‘feral tribe’, but of ‘a growing feral tribe’ – he sees Child A and Child B as a symbol of ‘a new breed of young criminal’, who are ‘wild beasts of the streets, impregnable to kindness or harshness, sympathy or punishment’. The circumstances surrounding Damilola’s killing are seen to symbolise the worst of modern Britain – poverty, lawlessness, racism, violence and that New Labour nightmare, ‘social exclusion’.

Straight after Damilola’s death, all the major UK politicians were leeching off the tragedy to push their pre-election statements about the terrible state of society, and the need for more and better anti-crime measures (see Damilola: a boy-meets-ghoul story, by Mick Hume). Peckham has become a politically expedient target for numerous urban regeneration schemes, increased surveillance and police presence – most of which come across more as stunts than practical improvements.

Whatever the effect of these proposals on the ground, one fundamental thing will not change: that a society sick at heart with itself will always go looking for symbols of deprivation and despair, and will always find them.

Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, on 26 April ran a lengthy report from Nigeria, where one of its reporters interviewed residents of Damilola’s former home-town, and his classmates. The reporter waxed lyrical about how young people in this community were well-behaved and respectful, and how they saw going to school as an honour. Listening to this, you could be forgiven for thinking that Nigeria is a far better place to raise and educate your children than the UK – which fails to answer the question, why did Damilola’s family send him here?

Modern Britain is so ill at ease with itself that it goes searching for utopia in an impoverished, war-torn third world country; while at home, every tragedy becomes another cause of self-flagellation, another metaphor for everything that is wrong. And none of this will bring Damilola’s killers to justice.

Read on:

Damilola: a boy-meets-ghoul story, by Mick Hume

Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

Bulger killers: childhood on trial, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

(2) Daily Telegraph, 26 April 2002

(3) Daily Telegraph, 26 April 2002

(4) Daily Telegraph, 26 April 2002

(5) Sun, 26 April 2002

(6) Daily Mail, 26 April 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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