Trials of bringing the Ripper to justice

Sir Harry Ognall Sir Harry Ognall is a retired High Court judge, who was QC for the Crown in the team that prosecuted Peter Sutcliffe.

THE fact that Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty of murder by jury verdicts after a trial arises out of a most unusual turn of events, which perhaps merit reiteration.

Originally, I was instructed as Queen's Counsel to lead John Hitchen for the prosecution and the then Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, opted to use his rarely-invoked prerogative to graft himself on to the prosecution team.

But his position as its ostensible leader became virtually untenable because of his willingness to accept Sutcliffe's pleas of not guilty to the 13 counts of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on each count, by reason of diminished responsibility.

Although this was not publicly known at that time, my junior and I were deeply opposed to this, but our objection faced difficulties. The two psychiatrists instructed for the Crown were prepared to go along with their defence counterparts.

They were prepared to accept that Sutcliffe was a paranoid schizophrenic, whose fatal attacks were prompted solely by his deluded belief that he had a "divine mission" to kill women who were, or whom he genuinely believed to be, prostitutes.

After protracted study, and despite this consensus, I was confident that this diagnosis was fundamentally flawed. I believed that extensive cross-examination of the doctors would demonstrate that Sutcliffe had deceived them.

The burden of proving that Sutcliffe was entitled to verdicts of manslaughter rested on the defence. The inherent weakness in the way of discharging that burden lay in the fact that the validity of the diagnosis stood or fell exclusively on the reliability of what Sutcliffe had said to the doctors as to why he had killed.

If what he had told them was clearly and demonstrably at odds with the objective evidence of the circumstances of the attacks, then the diagnosis was bound to be rejected and the only proper verdicts open to the jury would be murder.

There was also another consideration, of wider significance. Those of us – including the investigating officers – who had lived under the Ripper's reign of terror for several years, felt keenly that in this case it was not for lawyers to lend themselves to disposing of the matter other than by jury trial.

If ever a course of criminal conduct demanded a public rehearsal, these crimes surely fell into that category. The public were entitled to verdicts "by the people, for the people".

But the Attorney General did not agree. He also felt that, since Sutcliffe would be incarcerated for the rest of his life, whether convicted of murder or of manslaughter, the basis for the incarceration was, to a degree, incidental.

Accordingly, when the matter was first listed before Mr Justice Boreham, and Sutcliffe offered his pleas, the Attorney General told the judge that, since the psychiatric evidence was all one way, the Crown was prepared to accept manslaughter pleas. The judge was not impressed and made his unease increasingly apparent in exchanges between himself and Sir Michael.

Although the two men had both been counsel on the South-Eastern Circuit, the judge had, for some years, been a presiding judge of the North-Eastern Circuit.

Unlike Sir Michael, he was conscious of the wide-ranging impact of Sutcliffe's conduct on the millions, principally in West Yorkshire, who had endured it.

For him, as for many of us, the closure of this matter by a "deal" struck between legal teams was not acceptable. Even if it were concluded that the doctors were correct, the clear public interest in this case dictated a trial of that issue before a jury and verdicts by them.

The judge suggested that the Attorney General think again. Although, in our system, the prosecution is theoretically the ultimate arbiter as to the appropriate course to take, a judicial indication of this kind is rarely ignored.

Nor was it in this case; the Attorney General gave way. But, in so doing, he effectively made the extent of his own continued involvement in the forthcoming trial very difficult.

Having publicly indicated his willingness to accept the psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia, he could scarcely now be seen to be impugning that diagnosis and seeking verdicts of murder.

So he invited me to accept the responsibility of challenging the opinions of the doctors. I accepted and remember thereafter isolating myself in a London flat for many days, immersing myself in the preparation of cross-examinations.

Hugo Milne – a very experienced and highly respected forensic psychiatrist from Leeds – was the first to accept the burden of justifying his diagnosis.

He had to meet the fact that it rested exclusively on what Sutcliffe had said to him and the other doctors; that if it could be shown that this account could not be reconciled with other incontrovertible objective circumstantial evidence, then the premise on which the diagnosis rested was a false one; and that, bereft of that sustainable premise, there was no other proper verdict but murder.

He acknowledged the logical force of these propositions at the outset of cross-examination. He was then (over many hours) taken through the circumstantial evidence, which the Crown maintained pointed not to schizophrenia, but to the conclusion that Sutcliffe was a sexual psychopath.

Fairness to Dr Milne demands acknowledgement that he was merely the first of the doctors to be confronted with this most arduous task, in which they were increasingly on the back foot, and that he was to be much admired for accepting the initial, and therefore most onerous, brunt of the challenge.

The rest is history. Sutcliffe was convicted of 13 counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder.

In the context of this chronicle, that does not matter; still less does my intense feeling of personal vindication at that moment. It has also been said that, during those days at the Central Criminal Court, forensic psychiatry itself was on trial. That may be.

In my estimation, however, what was really at stake was a principle that I suggest is at least as important now as it was 25 years ago. When serious crime is exposed and prosecuted, trial by jury remains the best means yet devised to satisfy the public interest in a wholly transparent and fair system of criminal justice.

Moreover, and bred of centuries of English legal history, the public feel cheated if they do not have a pivotal role in the process. I believe that they have a legitimate expectation that they should be and will be involved.

And there is this, too: in recent years, there has been a disturbing increase in "plea bargaining".

Many judges and others believe that to accept a plea of guilty to a lesser offence is now frequently an excuse for an ill-prepared prosecutor to avoid the risk of acquittal on the more serious charge, so failing to put before a jury allegations that would properly reflect the true nature of the crime.

So it is that, at a time when trial by jury is under renewed challenge, this anniversary of the conviction of Peter William Sutcliffe comes as a keen reminder of its values and purposes.