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How Many Chances Should a Serial Killer Get?

The parole of Colin Pitchfork shows just how hard it is to predict future risk.

Key points

  • Colin Pitchfork is a U.K. serial killer convicted of killing two teenage girls in the 1980s.
  • He was sentenced to a minimum of thirty years behind bars.
  • He was eligible for parole in 2016 and finally released in 2021. There was considerable controversy over his release.
  • He was rearrested after only two months for parole violations. Some insist this affirms how dangerous he still is; others say the system worked.
used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

In 1983, twenty-seven-year-old Colin Pitchfork raped and murdered fifteen-year-old Lynda Mann in a small village in Leicestershire county, England. It was his first murder but far from his first offense.

Starting at age eleven, Pitchfork engaged in various troublesome sexual behaviors, exposing his private parts first to his friends and then branching out to strangers. Police first nabbed him for indecent exposure at age 14. Shortly before his wedding in 1981, local constables arrested him again.

The courts took the exhibitionism of a twenty-year-old a bit more seriously. He was ordered to get mental health treatment at a local psychiatric hospital, which he did. His treatment team thought Colin was back on track.

The Escalation

In 1983, the 22-year-old became a dad. This was also the year he sexually assaulted and strangled Mann, a lovely local girl whom he ambushed as she walked home from a babysitting job. His four-month-old son was asleep in the back seat of the car.

Three years went by, and it happened again.

On July 31, 1986, police spotted fifteen-year-old Dawn Ashworth's body less than a mile from where a local resident had stumbled upon Mann. Dawn had left home to visit a friend, but her friend wasn't home when she arrived. She had disappeared on the walk home. Two days later, her body was found in a wooded area near a footpath called Ten Pound Lane. She had been beaten, brutally raped, and strangled to death.

Corralling the Killer

After a massive manhunt, including the use of groundbreaking science and the voluntary DNA collection of 5,500 local men, Colin Pitchfork was arrested on September 19, 1987. To his social worker wife's shock and horror, Pitchfork confessed almost immediately to the two murders. He also admitted to two other sexual assaults and said he'd exposed himself to over 1,000 women.

He pleaded guilty. At Pitchfork's sentencing, mental health experts painted a grim picture of his psyche, opining that he had a "personality disorder of psychopathic type accompanied by serious psycho-sexual pathology" and was a serious danger to women. In other words, they were calling him a sexual psychopath.

The term "sexual psychopath" is not a formal psychiatric diagnosis. It's never been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the source mental health professionals use to pinpoint a mental health problem. But in the courtroom, it has ominous overtones. It is reserved for the highest-risk sex offenders.

Several states have passed "sexual psychopath" laws based on the belief that some people who commit serious sex crimes have no control over their sexual impulses and will re-offend regardless of punishment or other experiences. In Washington, D.C., for example, a person who qualifies for this designation after extensive psychological evaluation and a court hearing can be civilly committed until he is not dangerous, even if he has served his sentence.

Based on what Pitchfork did and what psychiatrists said, Pitchfork was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 30 years. In 2009, based on his model behavior as an inmate, two years were knocked off.

Pitchfork Gets Out

In September 2021, Colin Pitchfork walked out of prison amidst considerable controversy and outrage. Numerous people had argued for his release, including mental health professionals and prison staff. Those in favor of his release touted his stellar prison record; during his time behind bars, he earned a degree and became an expert (and volunteer) at transcribing music into Braille. He had participated in and completed numerous rehabilitative programs.

His advocates also cited his (apparently good) performance on a statistical risk assessment based on sex offenders' participation in treatment programs. They rightfully pointed out that, once an inmate had served his sentence, the issue was not how horrible his crime was. It was how dangerous he was now. He had been allowed day passes since 2017 with no apparent problem.

Those opposed to his release focused on different issues. An inmate who served eighteen months with Pitchfork described him as the most arrogant person he'd ever met and said he saw no signs of remorse.

Joseph Wambaugh, who wrote a 1988 book about Pitchfork and had extensive access to his case files and taped confessions, said Pitchfork was incapable of reform because he had no conscience and delighted in deception. After his arrest in 1987, he reportedly bragged about how easy it was to fool people. "Probation officers and psychiatrists, these people are quite happy if you tell them what they want to hear. I can't believe how easy it is to spin yarns to these people."

A U.K. professor and forensic psychologist, Kevin Browne, was apparently not confident in some evaluation procedures. In an interview with the BBC, Browne said, "The risk assessment tool used in prisons for sex offenders does not predict reoffending beyond chance, and the parole board may as well go by the color of their shirt."

Some opponents touted the sadistic nature of his crimes. Most sexual offenders do not kill their victims. In a study of more than 7,000 sex offenders, only 3 percent murdered their victims, 1 percent of whom were children. No matter how impressive Pitchfork's academic credentials, they argued, what does this have to do with his deviant sexual proclivities? No one argued he was dumb before he went to prison.

With such a small peer group, it is even harder to assess how effective Pitchfork's treatment has been a success; who do you compare him to? How do we know he's "cured," given he hasn't been around young women for decades? What if he's spent all this time reliving his past crimes and fantasizing about future ones?

Splitting the Difference

In September 2021, Colin Pitchfork was released. Clearly, parole officials were nervous about their decision. While the average number of parole restrictions the typical U.K. parolee received was seven, Colin Pitchfork had 40; regular polygraph tests, an ankle monitor, living restrictions, a curfew, and no contact with children or his victims' families. Violate a single condition, and it would be back in lockup.

Two months later, that's exactly where Colin Pitchfork was. In November of 2021, he was rearrested after allegedly approaching multiple teenage girls during his solitary walks. Staff members also cited Pitchfork's "bad attitude" as a cause for concern. And at least one parole officer suspected he was trying to manipulate polygraph results with breathing techniques.

The Bottom Line

Colin Pitchfork had a brief taste of freedom and is back behind bars. The Prison Board will hold another hearing later this year to assess whether he will stay in prison, move to one with fewer restrictions, or be re-released. Undoubtedly, the controversy surrounding his first release will be even more heated.

Those who fought Pitchfork's release will argue his actions speak of how dangerous he still is. Others will argue his rearrest shows the parole conditions work. Let's hope they make the right decision; lives could be at stake.


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