Is Peter Sutcliffe Insane?

Can a man guilty of at least 13 murders and 7 attempted murders ever be considered to be "sane?" Indeed, what do we even mean by that word? We look at his crimes, claimed motives and the explanations offered for his behaviour.

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Can any man held responsible for 13 murders and 7 attempted murders (as well as being a suspect in perhaps 2 dozen more) ever be considered to be 'sane'. This is the question that has vexed the legal system, the judiciary and the public for almost 35 years since the man responsible for the 'Yorkshire Ripper' killings was caught.

It is a divisive question - once more brought into the spotlight by the considered opinion of those charged with Peter Sutcliffe's care that he has been cured of the paranoid schizophrenia with which he was diagnosed in 1984. With this decision in December 2015 comes the probability that Sutcliffe may be removed from Broadmoor Hospital and put back into mainstream prison to serve out the rest of his sentence - and indeed his life. With the decision is also renewed the controversy surrounding the original diagnosis and thirty years of bitter argument over how society should deal with a man like Sutcliffe.

Sanity - in the eye of the beholder?

Sutcliffe's defence at his original trial was largely based on his fitness to actually stand trial. He claimed to have heard voices coming from the grave of a dead Polish man telling him to rid the world of prostitutes. This, it was argued was sign of paranoid schizophrenia. Sutcliffe was a man labouring under delusions, hearing the voice of God and acting under the influence of literal madness. Psychiatrists testified that Sutcliffe was truly ill and therefore couldn't be tried for murder in the fullest sense - that he should be tried for the 'lesser' charge of murder with diminished responsibility.

So strong were the convictions of these medical experts that the Crown initially moved to prosecute on this basis. Only the intervention of the presiding judge - who asked the jury to make that final decision - ensured that Sutcliffe stood trial as a competent man.

And so it was that he was found to be sane by the courts, tried in full competency and sentenced to life imprisonment with 20 concurrent sentences. Within 4 years, and following a number of attacks on Sutcliffe in prison, the psychiatrists won the day. Sutcliffe was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and removed to Broadmoor secure hospital for treatment as well as incarceration.

Doubts were voiced at the time and ever since about this diagnosis. Critically, evidence was never brought to light at the trial that may have had a critical bearing on the judgement of the psychiatrists. 

The "Killing Trousers"

The idea that Sutcliffe was acting during periods of insanity was given credence by the alleged lack of planning and sexual motivation. That Sutcliffe didn't engage in sexual activity with his victims and apparently struck at random without planning suggested a man labouring under periodic episodes detached from the normal life of a working husband that ran in parallel. To put it crudely, Sutcliffe was actually two conflicting personalities in one body.

But his trial was conducted in haste - over within a fortnight - and, it later transpired, critical evidence to the contrary was not submitted. Among Sutcliffe's effects, the most damning evidence were what become known as his "killing trousers."

The "trousers" were actually a green jumper, worn upside down by Sutcliffe. Placing his legs through the arms meant that the neck hole became an easy access point to his genitals. The elbows of the jumper were padded by him, enabling him to kneel for longer periods in relative comfort. 

The implication is disturbing. Far from being at the mercy of internal impulses beyond his control, Sutcliffe had worked out a method by which he could masturbate by the still-warm bodies of his victims. Far from frenzied slaughter, this suggested a cool rationality and no small measure of forethought. Furthermore, it made Sutcliffe's motives clearly entangled with his sexual needs.

In Sutcliffe's cursory descriptions of his murders given during his interviews, the killings were matter-of-fact events, with sex barely warranting a mention. He contended that prostitutes sickened him and it was his internal madness alone that made them his primary target. But once his mask slipped. After his initial attack on Helen Rytka, he admitted having sex with the bloodied, dying woman, but gave the bizarre reason that he did so in order "to keep her quiet."

What other secret rituals Sutcliffe took part in with the women he killed will probably now never be known, but removing the "insanity"


In December 2015, a psychiatric assessment into Sutcliffe's mental state at Broadmoor concluded that his condition had improved sufficiently to warrant his return to the general prison population. 

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