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Peter Sutcliffe wins right to ruling on release

High Court to decide on minimum sentence tariff for serial killer

Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, has won permission for a High Court hearing which will determine whether he could one day be released.

The serial killer launched his attempt to obtain a hearing on how long he should be imprisoned in 2008, but reporting restrictions which kept the proceedings anonymous were finally lifted yesterday after a judge ruled that the ban risked infringing the "overriding principle that justice should be seen to be done".

Sutcliffe, 63, who now prefers to be known as Peter Coonan, was given 20 life sentences in 1981 for the murder of 13 women and the attempted murder of seven others in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester over a five-year period, which made him one of the most prolific killers in British history.

A 30-year tariff, which is due to expire next year, was recommended by the judge at Sutcliffe's trial but never formally adopted by the Government at the time. Since then, tariff-setting powers have been transferred back to the courts to counter concerns of political intervention in sentencing powers.

Sutcliffe, who has spent all but three years of his sentence inside Broadmoor high-security hospital, does not feature on a Home Office list of 35 prisoners serving "whole life" sentences, and applied to the High Court to determine whether he should be added to that list or given a finite prison term.

Mr Justice Mitting ruled yesterday that Sutcliffe was entitled to a hearing to set his tariff, likely to take place later this year. A decision to give the serial killer a limited term "for retribution and deterrence" would eventually allow him to seek a parole hearing to decide whether he was fit for release.

The High Court in London heard that Sutcliffe, who claimed he was on a "mission from God" to kill prostitutes, had enjoyed "very considerable success" during his treatment after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The Ripper, in fact, targeted at least 10 women who were not sex workers, including his youngest victim, 16-year-old Jayne MacDonald.

Dr Kevin Murray, the psychiatrist who has been in charge of Sutcliffe's care since 2001, said in a 2006 report that the former lorry driver now posed a "low risk of reoffending".

The report also questioned whether Sutcliffe, who mutilated his victims using a hammer, a sharpened screw driver and a knife, should have been convicted of murder for the killings, suggesting in "blunt and firm" terms that he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time and should have had a plea of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility accepted by the trial judge, Mr Justice Boreham.

Mr Justice Mitting ruled that Dr Murray's report could not form part of the evidence to be heard at the tariff hearing, but in a surprise move suggested it could be grounds for a referral to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the body that investigates suspected miscarriages of justice.

The tariff hearing could still decide to impose a whole life sentence on Sutcliffe. The sanction is normally imposed if an offender has murdered two or more people with a substantial degree of premeditation and if the victims were abducted or there was a sadistic or sexual element to the killings.

After reports last year that Sutcliffe might be transferred to a lower security hospital, Gordon Brown said it was "very unlikely" he would ever be released.