LEADING ARTICLE: West should not have died

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Frederick West's premature death is a loss to humanity. This might seem to be a perverse conclusion about a man who was accused of being one of Britain's worst serial killers. Many think that his death by hanging is the only good to have come out of a terrible saga. After all, a lot of public money will be saved as a result. No doubt those who favour capital punishment will feel some satisfaction at what has occurred.

Yet without a trial we have been robbed of the chance to hear and appreciate the horror of what happened and what the victims must have experienced. We needed an opportunity to understand West, who has taken many secrets about himself and others to his grave. We are left with the Freddie West freak show, set out in gory detail in the tabloid press. This is a disservice to those who died and leaves us diminished.

West's escape from the courtroom is also bad for justice. There are claims that his wife's trial may have been prejudiced by the attendant publicity. West's apparent suicide also further clouds his true identity as the likely perpetrator of a great evil.

These murders have never gained a sense of reality in the minds of most people. Unlike the days when the Yorkshire Ripper stalked the country, no one appreciated that there was a serial killer on the loose until West had been arrested. So the Gloucester case failed to generate a similar level of public fear.

Instead, digging up the bodies became a farce. Akin to archaeology, the exercise seemed to involve discovery of events sanitised by the passage of time. West became almost a national joke rather than an object of horror.

A photograph published yesterday in this and other newspapers caught the mood. It showed prison officers laughing with West. All this enables us too easily to neglect the reality of what happened under his roof.

Once a murderer has become a legend, the nature of his crimes provokes ghoulish fascination rather than condemnation. The London Dungeon museum demonstrates the phenomenon. Victims are depersonalised and play minor parts in the murderer's story. Thus thepolice saw nothing inappropriate in releasing photographs of disembowelled women to mark the 1988 centenary of Jack the Ripper's carnage.

But those women were victims who met terrible deaths. So were those buried at 25 Cromwell Road. All deserve respect and justice. If only to honour the Gloucester dead and the bereaved, no effort should have been spared to keep West alive.