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Criminal law: Double jeopardy law change helped Stephen Lawrence murder conviction

Under the law as it was in 2003, the conviction of Gary Dobson for the murder of Stephen Lawrence yesterday would not have been possible. This is because previously the law made it impossible for the same person to be tried for the same crime twice.

That law was changed in 2003 and yesterday in dramatic circumstances Mr Dobson was found guilty of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, having been acquitted of the same charge in 1996.

The old law of double jeopardy or autrefois acquit, meaning previously acquitted, was designed to prevent the law trying a man repeatedly for the same offence. The principle had existed in English law since Norman times and is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. However exceptions were permitted on the basis of a mistake in law, or if a conviction appeared unsafe.

In 1999 the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent handling by the police of the case recommended that the law on double jeopardy be reviewed. The report cited advances in forensic science which might one day produce 'fresh and viable' evidence which could help secure a conviction for the killing.

The then Home Secretary David Blunkett put the matter to the Law Commission and they agreed that having absolute protection after a previous acquittal might lead to injustice in some circumstances. The law was changed as part of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and was implemented in 2005 although it was written to apply to retrospective crimes as well as future ones.

The first conviction under the new law was that of William Dunlop, who had been acquitted of the murder of Julie Hogg but subsequently confessed and was then convicted at a second trial.

It was feared that a retrial in the case of Gary Dobson might be tainted by the publicity he has received since the original trial back in 1999.

However, in ruling that a retrial was justified in May 2011 the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge said: "If reliable, the new scientific evidence would place Mr Dobson in very close proximity indeed to Stephen Lawrence at the moment of and in the immediate aftermath of the attack, proximity moreover, for which no innocent explanation can be discerned."

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

Can I be tried for the same offence twice? (FindLaw)

Find local criminal solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)