Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This week 31 year-old Joanna Dennehy returns to the spotlight as the media descend on Cambridge Crown Court to witness the trials of the men accused of assisting her in her crimes.  Dennehy entered a guilty plea to the murders of Lukasz Slaboszewski, John Chapman and Kevin Lee and the attempted murders of Robin Bereza and John Rogers  in a hearing at the Old Bailey in November last year. She is awaiting sentencing whilst her alleged accomplices appear in court, among them her partner Gary Richards – aka Gary Stretch – labelled a ‘giant’ by the media due to his considerable height of 7’3’’.

There are interesting elements to the reporting and discussion of Joanna Dennehy, all of which highlight the need to ask critical questions about media and popular constructions of homicide perpetrators.

For most criminologists, there are difficulties in applying the label ‘serial killer’ to Dennehy. Whilst she may appear to fit the FBI’s definition, “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events”[i], other criminologists emphasise the importance of a significant ‘cooling off’ period in between murders. This does not sit easily with the fact that Dennehy killed over a maximum 10-day time frame. She much more readily fits the definition of a spree killer, “the killing of three or more people usually within a 30 day period”[ii]. None of the media coverage I have encountered has used this term though. Why not? Simply, this label makes less of an impact.  ‘Serial killer’ on the other hand has a grisly glamour to it, appealing to consumers of books, television series and films about multiple murder. Put rather bluntly, serial killers sell.

However, my concern goes beyond academic quibbles over definitions. As a society, we have a hard time making sense of people like Joanna Dennehy.  They confuse us – they unsettle our understanding of who women are and how they should behave.  Contemporary notions of femininity don’t go hand in hand with fatal violence so we develop other ways of making sense of them.

We take away their identity as ‘normal’ women, remodelling them as men, monsters or both. Dennehy has been labelled a ‘man-woman’[iii] much like Aileen Wuornos twenty years before her. The construction of a monster is evident in depictions of Dennehy as witch-like, ‘casting a spell’ upon her victims and alleged accomplices. Her occult-style facial tattoo adds to the effect.  Her relationship with ‘giant’ Gary Richards fuels this even further – creating imagery straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm folk tale. This week a witness described Dennehy as a ‘rattlesnake’, resonant with the creepy serpents of myth and legend.  Normal markers of Dennehy’s femininity are wholly eclipsed by these powerful images – notably the fact that she is a mother to two children (albeit an absent one) – so they tend to be less prominent.

Criminologists have noted our preference for labelling female killers ‘mad’ or ‘bad’[iv]. The ‘monsterisation’ described above places Dennehy very much in the bad camp. However, there’s a sprinkling of mad in the coverage too. Upon her arrest, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. She is a long-term abuser of drugs and alcohol. Her former partner tells of self-harm, describing how she cut her arms and neck with razor blades. Recent pictures of her posing after the murders also show multiple scars to her abdominal area, the result of past self-harm? But mad isn’t quite as edgy as bad is it? And it implies that society has some difficult questions to answer about care of people experiencing mental ill health.

Creating monsters – be they giants, witches or serpents – and labelling female killers mad or bad is a complete cop out. It’s a very easy way of making sense of multiple murder in a way that doesn’t involve thinking too hard about it.  Let us be in no doubt –  Joanna Dennehy knew exactly what she was doing in committing three murders and two attempted murders. She was considered fit to enter a plea and understood the meaning of the charges against her. This is a woman who chose to go out and commit murder, not just once – but five times.

However, if we are to start understanding this type of crime with a view to prevent it, we need to look at the bigger picture in which fatal violence became a choice for Dennehy in the first place. What was the nature of this individual’s experience within the landscape of social institutions like family, education, policy, economy and religion? I don’t dispute that some individuals are born with a higher propensity for violence but the development of this characteristic to such extreme levels requires a social environment to nurture and activate it. Perhaps contemporary society, with its prioritisation of profit over wellbeing and promotion of selfish individualism over community acts as a catalyst for killers like Dennehy?

By all means continue to label her a monster, an aberration and/or a witch if it helps you to file her away neatly and forget about her. But in sweeping her under the rug, we are continuing to incubate the violent offenders of the future. Dennehy’s former partner and father of her two children stated in an interview recently, “It was inevitable this was going to happen. She was either going to do something to herself or to someone else”[v]. Multiple murder should never be ‘inevitable’. Whilst entirely culpable for her crimes, Dennehy is also a product of the social world and only through asking some difficult questions about the state of society can we begin to prevent more Joanna Dennehys developing to their deadly potential.

[i] US Department of Justice – Federal Bureau of Investigation (2008). Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Investigators [online]. Available at: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder/serial-murder-july-2008-pdf (Accessed 20th January 2014).

[ii] Holmes, R. M. and Holmes, S. T. (2001). Murder in America, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage, p. 55.

[iii] Johnston, I. (2014). Joanna Dennehy: Female serial killer’s victims were ‘fatally attracted to her’, The Independent [online], 20th January. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/female-serial-killers-victims-were-fatally-attracted-to-her-9062700.html (Accessed 20th January 2014).

[iv] D’Cruze, S., Walklate, S. and Pegg, S. (2006). Murder. Cullompton: Willan.

[v] Byrne, P. (2013). Joanna Dennehy: Ex-boyfriend tells of ‘hell’ with the baby-faced angel who became a serial killer, Mirror [online], 23rd November. Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/joanna-dennehy-ex-boyfriend-tells-hell-2840683#.Ut2pjdFFDIU (Accessed 20th January 2014).

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.