As humans, we want a rational explanation to help us understand why someone would commit these horrific crimes.
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The understandable response of many to the horrendous crimes of Lucy Letby has been: “Lock her up and throw away the key.” Letby, a former NHS nurse, has been given 14 whole-life sentences for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others while working in a hospital’s neonatal unit between 2015 and 2016.
Much of the media coverage of Letby’s trial has included incomprehension and anger, with discussions as to what her motivations could possibly have been and whether she is “evil” – along with what that might actually mean.
Questions have also been raised as to Letby’s mental health status – and if she is a psychopath. The judge said Letby showed a “malevolence bordering sadism”. And Letby’s crimes seem all the worse because they strike at the innocent – hospitalised babies and their worried families – by someone who is in a position of trust and responsibility.
A person who ostensibly has a vocation to care has harmed and killed. She has acted alone, albeit within a system that enabled her to continue her crimes. The official inquiry into the murders is likely to demonstrate the context in which her crimes were committed and whether some or all of them could have been prevented. But any findings are unlikely to quell the anger and disgust that many may feel on behalf of her victims.
The demands of justice
In my work, I focus on what justice looks like and what it means. In cases such as Letby’s, it’s worth revisiting what we mean by justice. Letby will be incarcerated for the rest of her natural life and won’t have any opportunities for early release or parole unless the justice secretary rules there are “exceptional circumstances” to justify her release. This is the most severe punishment that can be received and at best she will have to try and adapt to prison life.
It may be that over time a psychiatric diagnosis emerges to help us to understand why these events have occurred. But as forensic psychologist Ruth Tully has argued, violence is always complex and cannot simply be explained by a psychiatric diagnosis.
More importantly, we know that no amount of punishment – however severe – will undo Letby’s crimes, or heal the victims and their families. There can be no satisfaction here, though maybe some small comfort in knowing that Letby will never be able to harm anyone else in the same way again.
The law and language
In the UK, the courtroom is a public space where the victims and the accused, with the help of court personnel, engage in ceremony and interpretation to make sense of and judge alleged crimes.
The development of these processes in the UK’s justice system and our understanding of morality and punishment have been heavily influenced by the country’s history and the culture of the established church as part of the state. My work focuses on this link between religion and the law and looks at what this means in terms of criminal justice.
Public shaming and condemnation is a key feature of our criminal justice system. The language used to communicate and justify punishment also frequently becomes explicitly religious due to the limits of rational explanation and the need to express deep-felt emotions. Indeed, I’ve seen post-trial statements, particularly by police officers, include religious-sounding phrases such as “truly evil” or “beyond redemption.”
Despite our natural and justified emotions, Letby still has [basic human rights] enshrined in law which must be observed. It will be up to the personnel in the prison estate who work with her and any family or friends who keep contact with her to ensure these are observed.
More important by far, though, are the rights of the bereaved and traumatised families of Letby’s victims. Living through Letby’s prosecution and experiencing the media coverage will have caused fresh trauma and it is important that they receive the appropriate support.
The UK parliament is currently debating amendments to the UK victims and prisoners bill, which has been criticised by some advocacy groups for folding an original victims bill into legislation concerning the rights of prisoners as well.
As one mother, who lost one of two twin brothers attacked by Letby said in her victims’ impact statement, she feels she is “living with a life sentence because of Letby’s crimes”. This will be a common emotional reaction among the victims’ families. Many reported being on medication to help deal with the trauma. There are also families whose babies have been left with permanent disability by Letby’s attempts to murder them. These are the people whose rights must be paramount if true justice is to be observed.
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