News that Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe is once more sane and has been returned to prison took me back to his 1981 trial.
The judge was Mr Justice Boreham, while attorney general Michael Havers led the prosecution. The gossip was that there was hostility between the pair. James Chadwick QC led for the defence.
Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He claimed he was doing god’s work and, while working as a gravedigger, had heard voices ordering him to kill prostitutes. Four psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and Havers intended to accept the pleas of diminished responsibility.
This did not please the public, who believed Sutcliffe would have ‘got away with it’. Nor did it appeal to Boreham, who thought Sutcliffe might have deceived the doctors and that the medical evidence should be tested by a jury. After a two-hour submission by Havers, a 90-minute lunch break and a further 40 minutes of legal discussion, Boreham rejected the pleas. This led to the embarrassing situation of Havers being effectively obliged to cross-examine the same psychiatrists on whose evidence he had been intending to rely.
After a two-week trial Sutcliffe was found guilty of murder. Boreham sentenced him to life with a minimum of 30 years. In 1984
Sutcliffe was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.
I have always thought that Havers could have pre-empted the judge by entering a nolle prosequi on the other murder charges once Sutcliffe had pleaded guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
As a postscript, Havers told jurors: ‘Some [victims] were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.’ The English Collective of Prostitutes accused Havers of ‘condoning the murder of prostitutes’ and demonstrated outside the Old Bailey.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor