If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Yorkshire Ripper

In 1976-77, I spent the best part of a year living with my parents and studying for an MA at the University of Leeds. I had already spent four years away from home, so I didn't really feel like staying in a lot and playing Scrabble with the mater and pater. And I was also a smoker, and they weren't. Hence, I spent a lot of time 'going for walks' in the evenings, around the streets of my youth. It was a bit of a strange experience, as up to the age of 18, I could walk round these streets and every few hundred yards there would be a mate's house, of a girl I fancied, or a pub I used to go in (and often get thrown out of). But that year, all the mates and the girls were somewhere else, and I've never been very good at drinking on my own. And the dog had been run over several years before, so there was no companionship at all.

As an only child, this kind of thing suits me fine. I am happy with my own company, and a few evenings strolling round empty streets, thinking my own thoughts, was quite a pleasant opportunity for reflection. The streets were utterly familiar, of course, with significant landmarks everywhere. I felt perfectly safe.

I had been away at Teacher Training College doing my post-grad Certificate when the Ripper murders started. The first attacks took place in the summer of 1975, but no-one linked them and they were not widely reported. The first time the police suspected that a serial killer was operating was when two Leeds women were murdered and mutilated in a similar fashion in late 1975 and early 1976. And then he struck again in May 1976 and then again in October. This was when the panic started amongst the general population. The coining of the term 'Yorkshire Ripper' by the press added to the feverish frisson that spread through the area. This was the time when I returned to Leeds for about 10 months.

It was creepy. While I was distressed about the murders (and who could not be?), I didn't buy the demonising rhetoric of the newspapers - especially the Yorkshire Evening Post, which practically wet itself with every new piece of information. We had a sad and dangerous man on the loose, who needed to be stopped, and stopped quickly, that was all. But how the whole business had affected people in general was brought home to me one night when I went for a longish walk - a 'three-cigarette' walk, as I termed it in my head. Past the children's home, then down the road to the bus station by the park, and back a different way for variety - about 45 minutes' walk in all. It was February 1977, and Irene Richardson had just been murdered on her way to a disco in Leeds.

The first thing that struck me as strange was how empty the streets were. OK, it was mid-evening in winter, and not the time or weather for promenading, but there were normally plenty of people about, walking to the pub or the chip shop. But that night, the streets were almost deserted. I remember feeling a shudder down my spine, partly from the cold and damp air, and partly from a feeling of unease. It was not that I feared being attacked - it was pretty clear that as a 23-year-old male I was not part of Sutcliffe's demographic - but it was the general atmosphere of fear and suspicion. I was walking down a broad, tree-lined street when I saw a woman walking towards me. About 200 yards away, she crossed the road and passed me on the other side. A little while later, a man did the same thing. This might be normal for London, or the Outer Hebrides, I don't know, but for Leeds it was pretty strange behaviour. Usually, you would pass someone and wish them 'good evening', stranger or not. It made me realise how much the panic had permeated through the whole of the public. I suppose all women suddenly regarded themselves as potential victims, and men as potential suspects. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.

The Times today reports that Sutcliffe is seeking release from his prison sentence, on the grounds that his conviction for murder was wrong. His psychiatrists at Broadmoor believe he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and therefore was suffering 'diminished responsibility' and should have been convicted of manslaughter.

Well, I am sorry, but I don't give a shit about that. What he did is unquestioned. The evidence was sound, and he confessed. What his state of mind was when he committed those crimes is, frankly, irrelevant. I don't care if he was plain evil, or hearing voices from God, or if he thought he was doing society a favour, or if he just did it for fun. He killed 13 women and grievously attacked several more. For that reason alone, society has the right to take him out of circulation permanently.

If there is a mad dog in the street, you shoot it. You don't ask if it had a hard upbringing and then offer it counselling. Afterwards, you might look into the circumstances and take steps to avoid it happening again, but that is later. You deal with the threat first, and the threat is all you need to know. I don't believe in the death penalty (although this case brings me close to changing my mind), but Sutcliffe should have been locked away for life. No minimum tariff, no parole board reviews, no time off for good behaviour. Life - meaning until he dies in prison. That is what the offences deserve, whatever his state of mind or mental health.

As I have commented before, once you break the law, you lose the protection of the law. You lose your human rights when you take away the human rights of others - and what right is more sacred than the right to continue living?

Some of his victims were prostitutes; others were not. I don't discriminate: each woman, whatever her path in life, was someone's mother, or daughter, or friend, or partner. Each had the right to live peaceably, and each had that right taken away brutally by someone who, for whatever reason, thought that he had the freedom to do so. Just their names, and the ages at which they died:

Wilma McCann, 28
Emily Jackson, 42
Irene Richardson, 28
Patricia Atkinson, 32
Jayne MacDonald, 16
Jean Jordan, 20
Yvonne Pearson, 21
Helen Rytka, 18
Vera Millward, 40
Josephine Whitaker, 19
Barbara Leach, 20
Marguerite Walls, 47
Jacqueline Hill, 20

The Yorkshire Evening Post was disgraceful in its reporting of the women's circumstances. Each report was heavy with implied condemnation of the victim as a 'prostitute' or a 'good-time girl'. The subtext was evident: if that's the kind of life you choose, that's the risk you run. The panic-filled reporting of the first 'normal', i.e. non-prostitute, victim laid so much emphasis on the 'innocence' of the victim that it made the newspapers' mindset very clear. Up till now, he's only killed women who deserved it and decent people were safe, but now it could be you.

I was pleased to note that the reporting of the killings of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 was very different, and mainly referred to the victims as 'women', treating their occupations as secondary. That's progress of a kind.

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