Whole-life orders: The sentence that sees criminals likely to die behind bars

Lucy Letby has become only the fourth woman in UK history to receive the sentence

Flora Thompson
Monday 21 August 2023 13:20 BST
Lucy Letby
Lucy Letby (Cheshire Constabulary)

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Louise Thomas

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Lucy Letby is facing the rest of her life behind bars after being handed a whole-life order, becoming only the fourth woman in UK history to receive such a sentence.

Whole-life orders are the most severe punishment available in the country’s criminal justice system and are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

The 33-year-old nurse has become the most prolific child serial killer in modern British history, after being convicted of murdering seven babies and trying to murder six more.

During the hearing Nicholas Johnson KC, prosecuting, had told the court Letby’s offending was a “very, very clear case” for a whole-life order to be imposed.

She joins a string of the country’s most dangerous offenders who are likely to die behind bars, including Sarah Everard’s killer Wayne Couzens, necrophiliac David Fuller and homegrown terrorist Ali Harbi Ali who murdered MP Sir David Amess.

A total of 70 criminals are serving a whole-life order, four of which are being held in secure hospitals. They will never be considered for release, unless there are exceptional compassionate grounds to warrant it.

Only three women have previously been handed the sentence: the girlfriend of Moors murderer Ian Brady, Myra Hindley – who died in 2002 – and serial killers Rose West and Joanna Dennehy.

Letby also follows in the footsteps of gun fanatic Louis De Zoysa, who was handed such a sentence last month after shooting Metropolitan Police custody sergeant Matt Ratana while handcuffed in a police cell in 2020.

Lucy Letby, pictured during her arrest, refused to appear in court for sentencing (Cheshire Constabulary/PA)
Lucy Letby, pictured during her arrest, refused to appear in court for sentencing (Cheshire Constabulary/PA) (PA Media)

In December, killer Damien Bendall began serving a whole-life order for murdering his partner Terri Harris, 35, her daughter Lacey Bennett, 11, her son John Paul Bennett, 13, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, also 11, who was staying for a sleepover.

A year earlier Fuller was handed the same sentence for the murders of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce in 1987 and the sexual abuse of more than 100 dead women and girls in hospital mortuaries.

Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield is serving two whole-life orders – for her murder, the killings of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy.

Other notorious criminals serving whole-life orders include Michael Adebolajo, one of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s killers; Mark Bridger, who murdered five-year-old April Jones in Wales; neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, who killed MP Jo Cox; serial killer Stephen Port and, more recently, the Reading terror attacker Khairi Saadallah, who murdered three men in a park.

Before they died, Brady, as well as the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and doctor Harold Shipman – thought to be one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers – were also among those serving whole-life orders.

In the past, home secretaries could issue whole-life tariffs, as they were previously known, and these are now determined by judges.

Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which became law last year, the Government expanded the use of whole-life orders for the premeditated murder of a child.

The reforms also allows judges to hand out the maximum sentence to 18 to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, such as for acts of terrorism leading to mass loss of life.

And the act gives judges the discretion, in exceptional circumstances, to impose a whole-life order on offenders aged 18 or over but under 21.

Manchester Arena bomb plotter Hashem Abedi, who was convicted of conspiring with his suicide bomber brother Salman Abedi over the 2017 atrocity, avoided a whole-life order because he was 21 at the time.

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