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Murder, Lies and the Human Condition

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I was reminded again this week, as two of the men accused of playing a part in the murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, South London, in 1993 were sent to prison -- or in one of their cases, simply sent back to prison where he was serving sentence on another crime -- that there is an aspect of the human condition that is constant in us all, and that comes to the fore most often when we end up 'in the frame' for having committed an infringement of the law. We, as a species -- are essentially liars.

I grew up in Eltham in the 60's and 70's. I had my first paid job in Eltham High Street in a 'men's outfitters' as they were called in those days. I did my early acting at the Priory Players at the top of the High Street. And I used to get on the number 161 bus to Woolwich every Saturday to go and see Charlton Athletic play at the very bus stop on Well Hall Road, where Lawrence was so ruthlessly cut down in his prime. Does that make me any more of a reliable commentator in regard to whether these accused men actually played any part in the murder of Lawrence or not? No, it doesn't. But it makes my interest all the more acute, and has done since the crime was committed over 18 years ago. In the same way that all parents, especially those possibly with daughters under the age of five (I qualify again) took such a fervent and all consuming interest in the Casey Anthony trial, and shared in the outrage at the verdict -- knowing in their hearts that justice, in that case, had not been served. I have followed the case of Stephen Lawrence over the years -- not fervently -- but interestedly, mainly because of my Eltham link, so I was pleased for his parents this week to see that a sentence has finally been handed down and that they can feel whatever sense of justice it is possible to feel in such a scenario, where your son has been cruelly taken from you.

But if we didn't lie as a species, that eighteen years of prolonged frustration would not have been necessary, would it? 'Did you kill this person?' -- 'No' -- 'Right, off you go then.' Or: 'Did you kill him? 'Yes' -- 'Right, well you will have to go to prison then'. 'I understand.' Simple. Life would be like the strange nirvana that perfused the first half of the film The Invention of Lying where no one was capable of lying, or had considered it as a viable social concept.

But we do lie. We lie about the things that we would rather we had not done. The things that in hindsight we realize were catastrophic lapses in reasonable judgement. Things we have done that we worry will give people a less than rosy view of us. And we go to a psychological place where we believe that our own rampant denial of our misdemeanor will somehow render our crime as having not taken place at all. So, we start to lie. And once that mindset has kicked in, there is no going back. And we get so good at it that we could become political primary candidates overnight. Of course, this condition only self-activates regarding the miscreant stuff we don't wish to take credit for. We happily take credit for the positive stuff. I love telling people that I wrote and directed Sliding Doors, if they say they enjoyed it. I will happily take credit for that. But I still categorically deny that it was me who set fire to the dustbins round the back of our house in Eltham on November 12th 1966 with a book of matches I took from my dad's trouser pocket. Oops! Take him down.

In the case of the boys, now men, that murdered Lawrence in what was clearly a racially-motivated crime -- at the age they were at when they committed the act in a twenty-second flash of brutal mindlessness and jingoism, this 'denial of culpability' was an almost common state of being. At that young age you are doing things you shouldn't do on an almost hourly basis -- I know I was. And the naughtier the things that I did -- the more emphatic the denial became. 'The higher the liar.'

I am convinced myself that the people who were convicted this week were involved in the Lawrence killing in some way -- that they were there that day. Who inflicted the fatal wound we will never know because, as we have established, it is not an achievement that anyone currently wants to take credit for. Not publicly anyway. There was no doubt much private swaggering, boasting and strutting within the crew at the time of the crime. The reason I feel fairly sure that the wrong men have not, in this case, been found guilty, is that in February 1997, after various trials and inquiries, the Daily Mail ran a full front page story with photos of the five men and the one word headline -- 'MURDERERS.' with a sub-headline that read: 'The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue' in bold print. They reprinted it again in July 2006 after new evidence has emerged. As far as I am aware, no law suits were ever served on the newspaper or its representatives. I am fairly sure that if I had been accused on the front page of a prominent national newspaper of a murder I know I did not commit, or play any part in whatsoever, I would be slapping down a writ pretty swiftly.

Indeed, it was the Lawrence case itself that led to the change in the law that allowed for the recent guilty verdict in the first place. Unconvinced with the validity of previous non guilty verdicts in the case, a public enquiry, headed by Sir William McPherson in 1999 led to a strident changing of UK law making the 'double jeopardy' ruling -- a contingency that decreed a person could not be tried for the same crime twice -- void in the case of murder trials where 'fresh and viable evidence is presented'.

And so, almost eighteen years after the tragic day when Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence had their son taken from them -- they have some kind of justice to hopefully placate their grief.

Why did it take so long? Because the people that played a part in the killing of Stephen Lawrence, are, as sadly we all are when needs must -- liars.