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Can women rely on the Parole Board getting it right if it frees men like Colin Pitchfork?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Following two previous applications to the Parole Board, Colin Pitchfork, the rapist and murderer of two girls, has been successful in the third: it recommends his release on licence. Pitchfork is 61. His victims Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth were both 15 when they died.

Pitchfork has especial notoriety, even for a killer and attacker of children, because of his extreme brutality and deviousness in avoiding arrest. He has been memorialised, also, as the first criminal to be convicted via his DNA. After David Baker, lead detective in police investigations, read that a scientist, Alec Jeffreys, was working on genetic fingerprinting, 5,000 local men were screened. But Pitchfork’s arrest owed much, as a TV dramatisation showed, to luck. He paid a friend, Ian Kelly, to supply DNA for him, an ambitious trick that might, had Kelly not openly boasted about it, have left him free to reoffend. Pitchfork pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, 10 years for each count of rape, three for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and three for two separate offences of indecent assault (the girls were 16). Lord Lane, then the lord chief justice, said: “From the point of view of the safety of the public I doubt if he should ever be released.”

In 2009, thanks to the murderer’s “exceptional progress”, Pitchfork’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, got his minimum term reduced to 28 years. Much the same argument, based on the presumably no longer psychopathic Pitchfork’s good behaviour in jail, appears now to have convinced the Parole Board.

The response, from the public as well as distressed relations of the victims, Detective Baker and a local MP, Alberto Costa (who has requested reconsideration of the decision) has prompted reassurances from legal figures that all is as it should be. The board knows what it is doing and will have read oh, ever so many documents written by, according to the Law Society’s Stuart Nolan, on the Today programme, “people who are the best to give assessments as to those matters”.

Echoes of the high court in 2018, when the above Edward Fitzgerald QC acted for a different sex offender, John Worboys, were perhaps unfortunate. Unsuccessfully (the Parole Board’s “irrational” decision would be overturned). Fitzgerald extolled its “specialist expertise”, it having heard all the evidence.

John Worboys
The Parole Board’s decision on John Worboys was overturned. Photograph: Metropolitan Police/PA

The public is further advised not to complain about the wrong things: however inadequate we might think Pitchfork’s sentence, it was imposed before whole life terms came in. So maybe it’s worth saying at this point, yes lawyers, thank you, point noted, along with the traditional hint that that amateur concern about apparently lenient treatment is invariably primitive as well as ignorant. Is it permissible, however, to wonder how the Parole Board, while observing its duties to rehabilitation, can be sure of protecting public safety, that key requirement for Pitchfork’s release?

It’s not the murderer’s fault, of course, that this, coming so soon after the Worboys reversal, should now coincide, following the death of Sarah Everard – police constable Wayne Couzens last week pleaded guilty to her kidnapping and rape and also admitted responsibility for her killing – with heightened awareness about male violence towards women and girls, with abject rape prosecution figures, grotesque court judgments and evidence of disturbing police attitudes all, also, contributing to women’s disillusion with the criminal justice system. Can we be sure, as with the Worboys decision, that an institutionally perverse if otherwise familiar understanding of what women should expect to endure from random men has not shaped the board’s notion of acceptable risk? Either way, it is amid an overdue acknowledgement of the relentless sexual harassment of young women and girls, with demands for corrective action, that the board wants Pitchfork, sadistic murderer of young girls, released. The further agony this entails for the families and friends of his victims is not, presumably, a safety issue.

Regrettably for the board, some women find its assurances of monitoring to ensure Pitchfork does not resume his habits of flashing at, brutally assaulting and sometimes killing schoolgirls, vitiate, for various reasons, the very confidence they are intended to build in a man known to be cunning and plausible. Even if extreme precautions were consistent with abundant faith in the redeemed Pitchfork they might be too much for the overstretched probation service by which he would be supervised. Last week, reacting to the Usman Khan inquest, HM Inspectorate of Probation said that staff should “use professional curiosity to question superficial compliance” by criminals who remain highly dangerous. Recalling, also, the crimes committed by Joseph McCann when supposedly under supervision it notes: “The assessment and management of risk of harm to the public is the weakest area of performance.” Meanwhile, according to recent Ministry of Justice figures, murders on licence have doubled in five years.

The family lawyer Dr Charlotte Proudman, discussing Pitchfork on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week, said, if he could be considered safe: “It does pose the question of whether the justice system is fit for purpose.”

Following the Worboys debacle, members of the public can ask the secretary of state to reconsider a Parole Board decision for reasons that are limited but include irrationality, as in: “The decision makes no sense based on the evidence of risk that was considered and that no other rational panel could come to the same conclusion.”

What rational panel could dismiss the possibility that Pitchfork is still, given his pitiless history, the nervousness reflected in the recommended monitoring and the limitations of the probation service, a threat to women? Well, maybe, admittedly, a panel that, like some leading rational law practitioners, would rather prioritise that part of the population Pitchfork left alone.

There is another possibility. By way of reassurance on public safety the Parole Board promises, in an unaccountable snub to seance and dowsing professionals, Pitchfork’s co-operation with lie-detector tests. Unreliable, inadmissible in courts, increasingly categorised as pseudoscience, these tests fail, a recent study states, “to protect the public”. No rational panel would touch them. Would that do?

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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