Peter Sutcliffe  Serial killers  Paranoid schizophrenia

Peter Sutcliffe seeks release date as psychiatrist says conviction for murder was wrong

March 2, 2010

Peter Sutcliffe was wrongly convicted of murder and may be safe for release less than 30 years after admitting killing 13 women, medical evidence presented to the High Court concluded yesterday. Details of the legal proceedings that the Yorkshire Ripper hopes will pave the way for his freedom can be reported for the first time after a judge lifted a secrecy order.

Sutcliffe, 63, will learn within months the minimum time that he must spend in custody before he can be considered for parole. A judge at his trial in 1981 recommended 30 years, which would have made him eligible to apply for release in January next year, but no formal tariff was set.

Mr Justice Mitting told the High Court yesterday that a psychiatrist’s report might also form the basis for Sutcliffe to appeal against his murder convictions. The Ripper has been accused of “hoodwinking” psychiatrists into believing that voices from God had ordered him to kill prostitutes.

Kevin Murray, a consultant psychiatrist at Broadmoor secure hospital, wrote that Sutcliffe had been wrongly convicted of murder.

The psychiatrist, who has treated Sutcliffe since 2001, said that it was the unanimous view of his colleagues that the Ripper was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of his crimes. Dr Murray’s report from 2006 concluded that Sutcliffe may be safe for release within a “low single figures” of years, the court was told.

His treatment has had a “very considerable success” and if he continues with it he poses a low risk of offending, the report added.
Mr Justice Mitting said that the report could not influence the court’s decision on the minimum period that Sutcliffe must spend in custody, but in an unexpected move he said that it might form the basis of an appeal against the convictions for murder on the ground that Sutcliffe was suffering “diminished responsibility” at the time of the crimes, so should have been found guilty of manslaughter.

Mr Justice Mitting said that Sutcliffe could appear in the High Court this year to witness the decision on the minimum tariff that he must serve before he is eligible for parole. The judge said that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, had provided details of about 20 previous relevant cases where a “whole life” sentence had been set.

The Prime Minister said in February last year it was “very unlikely” that Sutcliffe would be released. Sutcliffe, who is now known as Peter Coonan, has received tens of thousands of pounds of public money to fund his legal action. He is likely to seek lifetime anonymity if he is freed.

The prospect of Sutcliffe returning to the streets has divided the families of his victims and those who survived his attacks. Beryl Leach, 78, whose daughter was murdered in September 1979, said: “I just wanted him to be locked up and forgotten about. He should be kept away from society for ever.”

Barbara Leach, 20, was in her final year of a social psychology degree at Bradford University and walking home after a night out with friends when she was bludgeoned with a hammer and repeatedly stabbed with a screwdriver. “As a family our punishment goes on and on but I don’t see that his life in prison has been much of a punishment,” Mrs Leach said.

She was convinced that yesterday’s court hearing was an attempt by Sutcliffe towards release and a new life with anonymity guaranteed by the courts to protect him from revenge attacks. “I don’t believe any of that guff about him hearing voices, he just got his kicks out of killing people,” she said. “He will never be safe to be released.”

Marcella Claxton, 53, who survived being attacked with a hammer, said: “I have not forgotten what he has done to my mind. He has not been punished enough. He should stay inside. If he ever comes out he could do the same thing again.”  Olive Smelt who was struck twice on the head with a hammer in August 1975 did not oppose her attacker’s release. “It is 35 years ago and we don’t think about him any more,” said her husband, Harry. “But I don’t think they dare release him.”

Mr Justice Mitting has already received written “victim impact statements” from relatives and those who survived but indicated that he would not allow them to speak in court.

Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering 13 women and of attempting to murder a further seven during a reign of terror across the North of England. He has since admitted assaulting a further two women, including a 14-year-old girl.

Sir Michael Havers, Attorney-General at the Ripper’s trial, originally accepted the view of doctors who had diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and sought to have Sutcliffe placed immediately in a special hospital. However, the judge, Sir Leslie Boreham, insisted that there should be a trial so that a jury could be the final arbiters of Sutcliffe’s sanity.

The prosecution claimed that Sutcliffe hoodwinked his psychiatrists into believing that he had heard “divine voices”. The jury agreed and ruled that Sutcliffe was not suffering a mental abnormality at the time of the crimes and was therefore guilty of murder.