By Professor David Wilson & Professor Elizabeth Yardley, Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

As academic experts on murder and serial murder, one of the most common questions that we are asked – both more popularly and by other academics – is “who is Britain’s worst murderer?”

Probing this question a little further, it soon becomes apparent that “worst” has often different and various meanings depending on the questioner.  Sometimes by “worst” what in fact is meant is “prolific”, as in who has killed the greatest number of people; or else the questioner uses this description to imply “evil”, by which they mean sadistic, brutal or heartless in how they carry out their crimes and perhaps also in relation to what they do to their victims.

For some of our questioners, it is also usually obvious that they already have a hierarchy of heinousness and, for them, this will often be dominated by murderers who have recently been in the news or, at the opposite end of the scale, historical figures such as Jack the Ripper.

Yet newsworthiness and news values – what makes one murderer more likely to generate column inches, or become the subject of historical or true crime accounts – does not necessarily have to involve either large numbers of victims, or sadistic behaviour towards the victim(s), or even to be about someone who has been caught. Newsworthiness might simply have to do with variables such as the gender of the murderer, or the celebrity or status of the victim.

There are several other difficulties too when thinking about “worst”, including how some labelled as such might narcissistically enjoy the title, or how this description makes those labelled as such appear as “unhuman” – monsters – and thus simply serves to create a distance between them and us. Sadly, the roots of murder are all too common.

However, given that this question is not going to disappear, and thinking about the worst may actually be helpful to those working in criminal justice in, for example, deciding parole, how should we go about determining who is currently Britain’s “worst” murderer from a more meaningful criminological  perspective? What criteria should we use, and who would actually top our poll when this criteria is applied?

First, let’s think about murder more generally. Most murders in this country are committed in the “heat of the moment”, sometimes described as a “crime of passion”, a “domestic murder”, or are murders committed to “save face” in some form of dispute. The people who commit this latter type of murder are invariably young men, who will do so with little planning and who, after serving their sentence, will never commit another murder.

So, in this very basic way, we are already beginning to sketch out a way of thinking about “worst” – murders which are atypical from this general pattern of “ordinary” murder.

Atypicality would also imply murderers who plan what they do and who want to spend time with their victim(s) before they kill them. This is sometimes called being “process focussed” as opposed to “act focussed” and can be seen as the “signature” of the murderer. So too this developing criteria implies killing a number of victims in different incidents – as opposed to a “spree murderer” – and in circumstances where the motive was not the result of a dispute between friends or within a family.

What else should we consider to bring some better understanding to our question?

As we are thinking about the worst contemporary “British” murderers we should exclude those murderers who might have killed in this country but who are in fact foreigners. We should also include only those murderers who are still alive, and which means excluding such notorious recent murderers as Harold Shipman – the most prolific British serial killer; and excluding most “spree killers” too such as Thomas Hamilton and Derrick Bird.

From a legal perspective “worst” also implies that once convicted the murderer should have no or very little prospect of parole.  We should also exclude any murderer who has been convicted but who might still be maintaining their innocence – such as Colin Norris, dubbed by the press “The Angel of Death”.

We would also suggest that murders committed by children – horrific in themselves – should not be judged in the same way as murders committed by adults.  Such child murderers generate huge headlines, perhaps because they are so rare, but with a child we have to accept that their thinking and moral reasoning has not yet fully developed and there is therefore hope that they can change. We would therefore not include either Mary Bell or Robert Thompson and Jon Venables who murdered James Bulger. Nor should we consider those murderers who have clear and unambiguous evidence of underlying mental health problems and which led inexorably to their offending.

So, these general parameters leave us with a number of variables to determine “worst”.  These variables constitute our “murder scale” and are:

  • MULTIPLE VICTIMS – created over several incidents and which would include the type of murderer known as Hitmen and, most obviously, Serial Killers.  Here we might also consider a subset of murderers who were granted parole but who when released killed again;
  • EVIDENCE OF MURDERS BEING MOTIVATED BY PARAPHILIA/SEXUAL FETISH – here too there will be evidence of the TORTURE of the victim and prolonging the process of death so as to increase the sexual satisfaction of the murderer;  there will be evidence of “trophy taking”;
  • VICTIM VULNERABILITY – especially involving children and who are not directly related to the Murderer, but also including those killed in the course of their duties, such as police officers, priests, nurses and doctors;
  • SANE – at least at the time of the murder(s) and therefore legally responsible for their offending. 

So, applying this criteria, who do you think would be the “worst” British murderer?

Professor Wilson will call upon a panel of criminologists, forensic psychologists, journalists and police experts to evaluate and rank 20 of Britain’s most notorious living killers in a new 3-part television series, Measuring Evil: Britain’s Worst Killers, to be aired on Crime + Investigation (CI) from Sunday 1st November at 9pm.

 More on the Birmingham City University Centre for Applied Criminology

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