Victim not villain, says suspect's lawyer

For a man who does not like lawyers becoming personally attached to their cases, it seems odd that Michael Holmes chose to become embroiled in the most emotionally charged case of the decade.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence at a South London bus stop one night in April 1993 merited little public attention at first.

But, by the time one of the five accused, Gary Dobson, had ditched his lawyers and approached the Andrew Keenan & Co solicitor in 1994, the Lawrence case was developing into a cause celebre.

Last week, after a six-year campaign by Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Sir William Macpherson released his report on the botched Metropolitan Police investigation into Stephen's death.

Holmes' client did not come out of it well. Already publicly labelled a murderer by the Daily Mail, he was revealed in secret police recordings using racial abuse.

Macpherson said that the recording showed that Dobson and his four co-accused, Neil and Jamie Acourt, David Norris and Luke Knight were capable of committing a racist crime of the kind that ended in the death of Lawrence.

So perhaps it is surprising that Holmes begins his first media interview, not with a defence of Dobson, but of the Metropolitan Police who were labelled as institutionally racist by the Macpherson report.

“Like the rest of us, police officers are human beings, and are they going to run the risk to their careers of arresting somebody who is playing the race card?” says Holmes.

“I think with a professional black criminal, if he feels that he can play the racist card to his favour, then he's going to do that, isn't he?”

Such sympathy for the police may seem even stranger coming from an experienced criminal defence solicitor. But Holmes began his career in Scotland Yard's legal department, working there 15 years before going into private practice in 1974.

While Holmes believes there were grave shortcomings in the initial police inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death, he has no complaints about how officers treated his client.

But the hardened defence veteran is clearly amazed at the police desperation for a conviction, which mirrored a growing media and public concern over their handling of the case

“The police were so desperate for a conviction on the second arrest [of Dobson in 1995], that time and again I was approached by Detective Superintendent William Mellish and asked that if I could assure him Mr Dobson did not have a knife or use a knife on that fatal night in April 1993, and that if he was prepared to give evidence against the other four, then Mr Dobson could figure as a Crown witness.”

Dobson refused the police offer, maintaining his and the other four's innocence.

The police never managed to nail a case against the so-called Lawrence Five. The Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute in 1993 and again in 1994, while a private prosecution taken by the Lawrence family in 1996 was thrown out of court.

By now the press and public were demanding action against what they saw as five “swaggering racists” who had got away with murder.

Following a coroner's inquest in 1997, the Government set up a judicial inquiry into the case headed by former High Court judge Sir William Macpherson. The Lawrence Five were ordered to appear, despite attempting not to by seeking a court order against giving evidence. They failed.

Throughout the long-winded legal process, Dobson kept silent both inside and outside the courtroom.

Holmes maintains that while his client answered police questions, he did not want to incriminate himself in any further prosecution.

He says Dobson sought not to appear at the Macpherson inquiry because, “this wasn't an investigation into the five men, it was a investigation into the Met police”.

Holmes also talks at length about the pain suffered by the Dobson family at having their son labelled a racist murderer.

“I think that to an extent he has been a prisoner in his own house, as have his parents,” says Holmes.

Why, then, has Dobson refused to state his case publicly?

“One has to remember that one is dealing with five South London men who don't have the educational advantages of perhaps you and I, and thrust onto the public stage they do have difficulty expressing themselves perhaps as fully as one would like.”

However, Dobson appeared to have little trouble expressing his racist views in a covert police surveillance tape.

“I think the best way of answering that is that I would have thought the participants by now would have cause to reflect and be ashamed at what they see, very probably deeply ashamed,” replies Holmes.

He continues: “I think why they have remained silent since is, to all intents and purposes, because every time they seek to put their heads above the parapet they get shot at. Can you blame them for keeping their heads down?”

Holmes, who has received four death threats, says that he was struck by the “hostile feeling” at the Macpherson hearings. “I felt intimidated in the way we were treated, and I'm not an easy person to intimidate,” says Holmes.

He feels the cards were stacked against Dobson, including the refusal to allow him to be represented by a QC at the judicial hearing.

Did he think the inquiry bordered on a show trial?

“Yes I think it probably did,” he replies.

Holmes, who is currently doing pro bono work for two black men convicted of rape, has spent hours with Dobson's parents, despite his earlier protestations that solicitors should not become emotionally involved.

“They are a thoroughly nice South London couple who are shell-shocked by what has happened to them.

I've never heard them express a racist view over the many hours I have spent with them.

“They say when will it ever end? And I fear not for a long time yet.”