Psychologists cast doubts on police plans to interview serial killers

Matthew Beard
Saturday 21 February 2004 01:00

Serial killers who are interviewed by police in the hope that they will reveal the mindset of a murderer will simply "play games", a psychology expert warned yesterday.

Police are optimistic that by speaking to every multiple murderer in the country, they will be able to understand how the killers operate and to identify how early arrests can be made in future cases.

Scotland Yard ordered the research in response to last year's Washington sniper attacks in America in which 10 people were murdered.

But Michael Berry, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, was unconvinced the scheme would work. "It is going to be a very difficult job for the police because I do not think serial killers are going to talk," he said. "They are going to play lots of games, offer the police things and then not come up with the goods."

Keith Hellawell, who interviewed the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, compared the proposals by the Metropolitan Police to "looking for a needle in a haystack".

Detectives hope that their research will reduce the chances of a repeat of some of Britain's worst serial killers. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "Following the case of the sniper who terrorised parts of the USA, consideration was given to the possibility of such a case occurring in the UK.

"Although accepting the tragedies of Hungerford and Dunblane, with the very limited availability of such weaponry, it was felt that a more worthwhile area for research was with serial killers. The possibility of early identification of a series will allow for early response and the possible prevention in the numbers of murders within the series."

Even though some killers will refuse to help, detectives hope others will talk to them.

Other types of murder being analysed include honour killings, ritual murder, contract killings, homophobic murders, attacks on lone females, murders of pensioners and domestic violence killings.

Mr Berry, a chartered psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society, said the interviews might deepen understanding of homophobic and racially motivated crimes, but not necessarily serial killers. "We do not have many serial killers and they do not talk - look at Harold Shipman. A lot of them just won't talk to you," he said.

Police hope the interviews will be led by the detective originally involved in the killer's case, a psychologist and an analyst. Mr Berry said: "That is definitely going to be intimidating [for the serial killer] - facing a panel of people."

But he added: "I am all in favour of it, I just think that it is going to be a very expensive exercise. It will take some time to build up trust, but it might help officers to become more aware of patterns of crime at an earlier stage."

But Mr Hellawell, who was the senior officer chosen to interview Sutcliffe after his arrest, and succeeded in gaining more confessions from him, said more detailed information about how killers work must be of value to police. He said: "They tell you what they want you to know and to some of them, particularly I found with Sutcliffe, it was a game."

Mr Hellawell questioned the "credibility" of suggestions that the initiative could stop serial killers earlier. "Once in a decade or twice in a decade we have one of these people who are serial killers out of 60 million," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "It is virtually like looking for a needle in a haystack. Many of them have no previous convictions and it is only when they murder once that you have some basis on which to operate. I would like the police to actually look at some of the bulk of crimes." But he admitted that early intervention in domestic violence cases "can have a major impact". He added: "Many of these murders are committed in people's homes and you can prevent them," he said. "It is in some of these fundamental areas that we can hope to make a greater impact."

Mr Hellawell concluded: "Domestic violence is a very good place to start. It is this fundamental work that I think will perhaps pay more dividends than actually speaking to the bulk and majority of killers who will never, ever kill again and never, ever thought they would kill in the first place."

Notorious murderers


Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers, were jailed in May 1966. They sexually assaulted and mutilated their victims. The two, who photographed their victims, were caught after a youth witnessed one murder and told police.

Hindley was found guilty of two murders and Brady was convicted of three "cool, cold-blooded murders". Hindley died of heart problems in 2002; Brady is in Ashworth Psychiatric Hospital.


Along with he husband, Fred, Rosemary West abducted and murdered an unknown number of young women over a 20-year period. They buried their victims beneath 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. Fred West killed himself in custody on New Year's Day 1995, before their case went to trial. Rosemary was convicted of 10 counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in November 1995. She is currently in Durham prison.


Between 1975 and 1981, Sutcliffe, better known as the Yorkshire Ripper, murdered 13 women and left seven others for dead.

He hit his victims over the head with a hammer and stabbed them with a knife or a screwdriver.

On arrest, Sutcliffe told police that he had heard the voice of God tell him to kill prostitutes.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 and is currently held in Broadmoor hospital, Berkshire.


Nielsen was sentenced to life imprisonment in October 1983 for the murder and mutilation of at least 15 men.

He kept the bodies in his flat before disposing of them in his garden, but was caught when he blocked the drains by trying to flush parts of his victims down the toilet.

His killing spree began in 1978, and he would typically meet gay men in central London, take them back to his home and strangle them.

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