The racially motivated 1993 murder of 19-year-old Stephen Lawrence in southeast London made headlines — but for all the wrong reasons.
It took nearly 20 years for two of his killers to be brought to justice against the backdrop of a massive coverup by the Metropolitan Police. That long narrative road is the crux of “Conviction: The Case of Stephen Lawrence,” a three-part series on Acorn TV starring Steve Coogan as dogged DCI Clive Driscoll, who reopened the case and spent six years getting to the truth of what really happened that night.
“Conviction” aired last August on ITV in the UK under the title “Stephen.” It’s not the first time that ITV dramatized the case; a 1997 movie, “The Murder of Stephen Lawrence,” starred Marianne Jeanne-Baptiste and Hugh Quarshie as Steven’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence.
Quarshie reprises his role in “Conviction,” with Sharlene Whyte as Doreen. It’s based on Driscoll’s 2015 book, “In Pursuit of the Truth,” so he and his investigative team take front-and-center — but Doreen and Neville are by no means ignored and form the narrative’s true moral center.
The series begins in 2006. Driscoll is walking through a Metropolitan Police building that’s been shut down when he stumbles across a room filled wall-to-wall with boxes marked “Operation Fishpool” — the code name for the Stephen Lawrence murder 13 years before. Stephen and his friend, Duwayne Brooks, were waiting at a bus stop at night when they were attacked — Duwayne got away, but Stephen, who was studying at Woolwich College and hoped to be an architect, was stabbed twice and beaten. By the time help arrived, he was dead.
Driscoll takes charge of the case. It will take “some common-sense copperin'” as he tells his superior officer and he has to convince the higher-ups that he’ll find something new. He discovers many alarming facts: the five white murder suspects, members of a local gang, were initially arrested and released and the case was not investigated for another two weeks — although there were eyewitness accounts. Evidence, including Stephen’s clothing, was mishandled or ignored. The murder was described as a “brief attack” but the evidence on Stephen’s body indicates otherwise. The father of suspect David Norris was chummy with DS John Davidson, who was in charge of the original investigation. (Davidson was later cleared of any wrongdoing.) Two subsequent inquiries went nowhere and the police were apparently disinterested in finding the killers — or covering the whole thing up. The red flags nearly jump out of the TV screen.
“Conviction” cuts to the chase quickly as Driscoll assembles his team, hires an outside forensics lab to re-examine the clothing of Stephen and the suspects with technology not available in 1993, and assures the now-divorced Doreen and Neville — both cynical and wary of the Metropolitan Police — that he will do his best not to let them down. The resolute Doreen has dedicated her life to honoring Stephen’s memory and trying to get his killers brought to justice, endangering her life in the process; Neville grapples with his emotions and his inability to “forgive” his son’s murderers, who walk free — and, really, can you blame him?
Over the course of two years, Driscoll and his forensics team find new DNA evidence (blood, hair and jacket fibers) linking two suspects, David Norris and Gary Dobson, directly to the attack, setting the stage for their trial in Episode 3 and their conviction, in 2012, for murdering Stephen.
Coogan, a personal favorite (check out “I’m Alan Partridge” or “Saxondale” and you’ll see what I mean) hits all the right “determined investigator” notes and both Whyte and Quarshie, as Doreen and Neville Lawrence, are world-weary yet determined to fight the hatred and a corrupt system that robbed them of their son.