In the fall of 2006, I was still a newbie in London; in that naïve, wide-eyed way where seeing things like an 11 year old boy smoking defiantly could shock me.
It is perhaps telling that recently when I saw another boy - this one in his school uniform and tie - leaning against a scaffolding, wearing a menacing expression, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, I barely batted an eye lash at first.
And then, seeing him in that same position on my way back, I made eye contact and gestured at the fag, 'Bit young to be doing that, no?' He eyed me darkly for a beat, and then shrugged indifferently.
I shrugged too, and hurried on.
During that fall, I never expected to go to a class at university and be that girl who wept uncontrollably halfway through it, causing the Hugh Grant lookalike lecturer to pat her shoulders somewhat awkwardly in his attempt at comfort. The waterworks had flown freely after spending an emotionally tense time watching a reconstruction of the murder of Stephen Lawrence for the first time.
He was an 18-year old south London boy who, with his best friend, Duwayne Brooks, was targeted by a racist mob at a bus stop in Eltham in April 1993. The two run for their lives, but after sprinting for a bit, Stephen collapsed and was knifed to death.
This particular case devastated me no end. Don't get me wrong, every case involving torture and murder is heartbreaking, and Britain has certainly seen many - including the Soham murders in 2002 of two 10-year old girls by a local school caretaker; Damilola Taylor, the 10-year old Nigerian schoolboy who bled to death after being attacked by a gang near his Peckham estate in 2000, only months after his family had moved from Nigeria (and a few days shy of his 11th birthday) to seek medical treatment for his epileptic sister; Meredith Kercher, the British student murdered in Perugia, Italy, whilst on a study abroad in 2007.
Each of these cases fills my heart with such sadness, and even now as I write this, my eyes have welled up. Particularly in the case of Kercher, I can't get over the similar parallels between us - she would have been so excited to be studying abroad, to be living in a beautiful country and soaking up the European cultural experience, to be learning another language, to be eagerly awaiting the time when she could 'think in the language', supposedly an indication of how fluent one has become...I know because at the time of her murder, I was experiencing high levels of excitement as I also prepared to study abroad in Paris.
But the case of Stephen Lawrence...it tore my heart, perhaps, because I saw that brutal reconstruction and was confronted with a visual imagery of his last moments. In the class discussion afterwards, still heaving with suppressed sobs, I was shocked to hear that his murderers still walked free. It would be almost 19 years before two of them would be convicted - longer than the days Stephen himself had been alive in his 18 years. Yesterday, a guilty verdict was handed to Gary Dobson and David Norris: a minimum of 29 years in prison.
The sentencing sees two of the violent killers put behind bars at last in a case that has in its own way changed how the Met handles homicides and race-related crimes. Yet there is controversy still, and in what is sure to be a further blow to the Lawrences, Dobson and Norris have been sentenced as juveniles since they were under 18 when they committed the crime.
I feel a hollowness that I can't explain, and a dull mix of anger and sadness that it took this long for justice to be served. And if I, a complete stranger to the Lawrence family, feel this way, then I can't imagine what Stephen's parents, Neville and Doreen, have endured in the past 18 or so years. I have to hope that further police investigations will bring Stephen's other killers to justice; I have to hope that the dawning of each day brings us closer to eradicating racial discrimination from our world; I have to hope that in spite of the betrayals and injustice, this conviction will give the Lawrence family a semblance of closure, if there ever can be one; I have to hope that we have a judicial system that provides redress to people from all racial backgrounds.
I have to hope that Stephen can now rest in peace.
I simply have to hope...