Lee Rigby was a young father who had recently returned from serving in Afghanistan. He was crossing the street outside his barracks in London, as he had done hundreds of times before, when a car lurched across the road and knocked him to the ground. Video of the moment was greeted by gasps as it was played publicly for the first time on Friday, but it was just the start of a shockingly violent attack that stunned Britain.
Two Muslim converts stand accused of running Rigby down before hacking the 25-year-old to death “like a butcher attacking a joint of meat.” His head was all but severed from his neck.
Previously unseen CCTV footage recorded in Woolwich, southeast London, six months ago had captured the last few seconds of the soldier’s life. His widow, Rebecca, broke down in tears and fled the courtroom before prosecutors played video of the most brazen terror attack in London since the 7/7 bombings in 2005.
Once Rigby had been knocked over by the car, the court heard that Michael Adebolajo attempted to behead him on a busy street in broad daylight, they were a few yards from a busy school. When police officers shot and apprehended him, the prosecution said he told officers: “I am a Muslim extremist, this may be the only chance you meet one.”
Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, were arrested at the scene of the attack on May 22. “They had committed a cowardly and callous murder by deliberately attacking an unarmed man in civilian clothes from behind using a vehicle as a weapon,” said Richard Whittam QC, a lawyer for the prosecution. “They wanted members of the public to see the consequence of what can only be described as their barbarous acts.”
Both men admitted possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, but deny murder. They also deny charges of attempting to murder a police officer, and conspiracy to murder a police officer. It is alleged that they deliberately laid in wait at the murder scene so they could attack the officers who responded. They were shot before either could land a blow.
On the first day of a trial that is expected to last three weeks, the prosecution opened their case against the two men, who were born and raised in Britain.
Video of the attack began with a car swerving onto the wrong side of the road as Rigby, whose son is two years-old, crossed towards the artillery barracks where he was based. Prosecutors said Adebolajo was driving the car at between 30 and 40 miles per hour before both men got out of the vehicle and attacked the unconscious man. “He was repeatedly stabbed, and it appears it was Michael Adebolajo who made a serious and almost successful attempt to decapitate Lee Rigby with multiple blows to his neck made with the meat cleaver,” Whittam said. The soldier’s body was then dragged into the middle of the road.
When police officers shot and apprehended him, the prosecution said he told officers, ‘I am a Muslim extremist, this may be the only chance you meet one.’
Amanda Bailey was in her car as the events unfolded before her. “As she put it,” Whittam told the jury. “‘I was so shocked that all I could do was sit there and stare at what was happening. I couldn’t believe what was going on. He was determined and he wasn’t going to stop. He didn’t care.’”
While Bailey was understandably frozen in terror, other members of the public stepped in. One woman went to comfort Rigby, whose motionless body lay dead. Another woman engaged Adebolajo in conversation even though he was still grasping a meat cleaver and his hands were drenched in blood.
“[The] heinous [attack was] in distinct contrast to the bravery and decency shown by some of the members of the public present,” the prosecutor said. “Despite the abhorrence of the scene, one woman went to the lifeless body of Lee Rigby and stroked him to provide some comfort and humanity to what had unfolded. Others went to see if they could provide first aid.”
Amanda Donnelly Martin, who was with her daughter, was one of those later described as the Angels of Woolwich. The court heard that Adebolajo handed her a letter explaining what he had done. “If you find yourself curious as to why carnage is reaching your own towns, then know it’s simply retaliation for your oppression in our towns. Many of your people are aristocrats that directly benefit from invasion of our lands without material loss,” the letter read.
“Whereas the average Joe Bloggs working class man loses his sons when they are killed by our brothers. When the heat of battle reaches YOUR local street it’s unlikely that any of your so called politicians will be at risk or caught in the crossfire so I suggest you remove them. … May Allah guide your nation to the truth.”
After standing vigil at the scene of the crime, Adebolajo also approached cameras that began recording the aftermath. “He is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he said to the nervous crowd of onlookers.
Soon after, the court heard that he and Adebowale rushed towards armed officers as they pulled into Artillery Place. Whittam said Adebolajo held the meat cleaver above his head before he was shot down by officers. Adebowale is accused of rushing towards a police car, holding a rusted gun, when he too was gunned down by officers.
The prosecution said Adebolajo murmured more justifications to police officers as he was arrested. “Please let me lay here, I don’t want anyone to die, I just want the soldiers out of my country. Your government is wrong, I did it for my God. I wish the bullets had killed me so I can join my friends and family.”
Whittam told the jury that any attempts to justify the atrocity were irrelevant. “There is no defense of moral justification for killing just as there is no defense of religious justification. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth suggests revenge or retaliation, and in the context of this case, murder,” he said.