The Yorkshire Ripper

A documentary from a few years ago was recently re-run on Channel 5 – I caught up on it last night having not seen it before.  It focussed upon the mind or the mental state of the Yorkshire Ripper and by half way through I found myself fairly frustrated and wanted to document some thoughts.  It took just a few minutes for the narrator to introduce the “Mad” versus “Bad” fallacy <<< I have written about this recently.


Peter Sutcliffe was arrested after two uniformed police officer officers in Sheffield spoke to a man sitting in a car with a prostitute.  Having been arrested, the man asked permission to urinate nearby and was allowed to do so.  Later, the police returned to the scene and recovered a hammer which caused suspicion to rise that the man may be ‘the Ripper’.  And so he was, bringing to an end the biggest man-hunt in British criminal history.  Sutcliffe explained to the police that he was acting on instructions from God to kill prostitutes.

After he was charged with the trail of murders, Peter Sutcliffe was remanded to prison.  He was assessed by several, eminent forensic psychiatrists whilst he was on remand and formal psychiatric reports were completed by clinicians who had been asked by both the defence and the prosecution.  They broadly agreed on all important aspects: Sutcliffe suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and it was suggested that ‘diminished responsibility‘ would be appropriate should there be any suggestion of accepting a plea to manslaughter.

At the trial, the Judge, Mr Justice Boreham, declined to accept the defendant’s pleas to manslaughter without the psychiatrists being questioned as to the basis upon which they had reached that conclusion.  Was this motivated by public interest or, as some have suggested, politcal pressure?  Who knows.  Regardless of why, three forensic psychiatrists were questioned in court prior to any plea.  It was eventually suggested that medical conclusions reached were based upon an acceptance by the forensic psychiatrists of Sutcliffe’s version of events.  Because the judge felt that it was at least possible, if not probable, that evidence from the police inquiry showed Sutcliffe’s account to be lies, a full trial before a jury was ordered.  For example: not all of the victims were prostitutes and there was evidence of a potential sexual motive, hitherto denied.

The jury heard all of the arguments before finding Peter Sutcliffe guilty on all the charges and they rejected the ‘diminished responsibility‘ argument and convicted him of murders and attempted murders.


The documentary kept raising the “Mad” versus “Bad” debate.  It presented the issues before the trial as being a question of the jury working out which label applied.  As I previously wrote, this is not what the jury were being required to do: they were being requested to form a view on legal guilt for murder; with the option of convicting him of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, if they felt that the legal criteria for this were met.

No-one particularly disputed that Sutcliffe suffered from schizophrenia – except the defendant himself.  All the reports on Sutcliffe said more or less the same thing.  It was more a question of degree as to whether his illness gave rise to diminished responsibility.  Even once he was convicted and imprisoned, the prison psychiatrists had him within the hospital wing, arguing that he was mentally ill and of course eighteen months after his conviction an all counts, he was moved from Parkhurst Prison to Broadmoor High Secure hospital, in Berkshire.  He remains there to do this day.

Using the phrase non-legally, the documentary kept asking about ‘sanity‘ … of course ‘insanity‘ as a defence to a criminal charge is not available where the charge brought is murder.  The only alternative which may reflect an acceptance of the role someone’s mental illness can play in their homicides, is the ‘diminished responsibility‘ defence.  (Strictly, it is a partial defence.)


I wanted to write on this point again: to show this case reinforcing the point that the “mad / bad” thing is not about opposite sides of the same coin.  “Mad” was is vernacular for a medical condition; “Bad” implying criminal responsibility.  Concepts around illness and insanity are from two different worlds: medicine and law.  Sutcliffe was and is argued by psychiatrists to be mentally ill – this was always the case.  The question for the jury around this point was whether the legal criteria for ‘diminished responsibility’ were met.  The jury took the view that it was not.

This may be right or wrong: certainly the documentary reports that psychiatrists within the prison system thought he was “insane“, thereby showing the documentary confused the legal concepts quite badly.  Notwithstanding whether he was or was not insane or mentally ill, having been convicted of multiple murders, the law allows for only one sentence: life imprisonment.  Had he been convicted of any other offences at all – including attempted murders – then it would have been open to the judge, even if the jury convicted him through a finding of guilty having rejected any insanity defence, .

Of course, eighteen months after admission, he was transferred to hospital under s47/49 of the Mental Health Act 1983 – which in its effect legally transfers him into a detention exactly like a restricted hospital order.  Exactly like, except in one important regard:  should he ever be deemed to no longer require detention and treatment in a psychiatric hospital, he can be ‘remitted’ back to prison under s50 MHA.

The documentary reports that this was “official recognition” that he was ill.  Again, wrong: it was official recognition that the criteria for transferring him to hospital were met.  It was recognised that he was ill when he was tried, convicted and sentenced.  Just not, in the opinion of the jury, sufficiently ill to mean that the diminished responsibility criteria should apply.

The Mental Health Cop blog

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– was referenced in the UK Parliamentary debate on Policing & Mental Health
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2 thoughts on “The Yorkshire Ripper

  1. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking blog. I’d like to take issue with your statement that ” insanity” is not available as a defence in the case of murder. The Mc Naughton rules cover this issue, and if I am not mistaken still stand. They are “at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” They aren’t used in practice because diminished responsibility is easier to demonstrate.

  2. A nice, clear explanation but don’t hold your breath for the TV documentary producers to care. They deal in simple, easily digestible dichotomies aimed at a populist audience.



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