STANDFIRST: The son of Cherry Groce, whose shooting sparked the 1985 Brixton riots, tells the Weekender why the conclusion to his family’s 29-year battle for justice is bittersweet.
Lee Lawrence, aged just 11, was asleep in bed when his mum was shot by a police officer in their family home.
When he opened his eyes, jolted awake by the sound of the gunshot and his mother’s screams, their lives changed forever.
“All of the sudden she was lying on the floor, saying she couldn’t feel her legs, that she couldn’t breathe, that she was going to die,” he said.
“My childhood was robbed that day.”
Dorothy “cherry” Groce, then aged 37, was left paralysed from the waist after she was shot by a police officer in 1985, triggering two days of unrest in Brixton. Officers were looking for her son Michael, suspected of firearm offences, who was not in the house.
Now, 29 years after the shooting, an inquest into the mother-of-eight’s death has revealed that a series of police failings contributed to her shooting and eventual death in 2011, which a pathologist revealed was caused by complications from her injuries.
The jury concluded at Southwark Coroner’s Court: “Dorothy Groce was shot by police during a planned, forced entry raid at her home, and her subsequent death was contributed to by failures in the planning and implementation of the raid.”
The jury found there were eight failures made by police during the raid including not properly briefing police officers that Michael Groce was no longer wanted by police and failing to adequately check who lived at the property.
The now-retired officer, Douglas Lovelock, stood trial for inflicting unlawful and malicious grievous bodily harm, but was acquitted of all charges.
Ms Groce’s family were almost refused legal aid in the run-up to the inquest, launching a petition signed by more than 130,000 supporters.
Mr Lawrence said that he was happy to finally get answers after fighting for a fair inquest, but that he would always be haunted by the memory of his mum’s shooting.
“It’s hard to call this justice – it’s an acknowledgement,” he said.
“My mum’s life was sacrificed as a result of this conclusion so it’s hard to be happy about it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over what happened that day.
“But I believe that the truth has been revealed and there’s been some sort of accountability for what happened. The record has been set straight.”
Metropolitan Police chief Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has released a public apology to Ms Groce and her family, in which he apologises for the “actions and omissions” of the police and for putting Ms Groce through “years of suffering”.
“The Met failed to protect us, they failed to protect the public and they failed to do their job properly,” said Mr Lawrence.
He said that, growing up, he had his own issues with the police: “I used to be stopped for no reason when I was driving around and the police would use racist language.”
After her release from hospital, Ms Groce and her family left Brixton to live in a modified bungalow in West Norwood.
“Before it happened, I had nothing but good memories Brixton,” said Mr Lawrence.
“I loved the community spirit – we knew everyone, we were safe.
“We didn’t condone the riots but the community emphasised with what had happened and they were feeling our pain. They felt like we needed answers – why did this happen? Why did an innocent woman get shot by the police in front of her children?
“After, there was always going to be feelings attached to what happened when my mum was shot.”
Now, after years of searching for answers, Mr Lawrence said his family can finally grieve for his mum.
“We couldn’t grieve because we had to be strong for the inquest. Now we will have to deal for the first time with what has been brought up in the inquest – and it’s fresh,” he said.
“Life starts now for us.”