When the independent Parole Board for England and Wales announced its decision last month to release double child rapist and murderer Colin Pitchfork, public outrage followed. People rightly questioned how this independent body could reach such a decision given the horrific nature of the offences committed and whether it could ever really know whether Pitchfork was no longer a risk to the public.
The brutal raping and barbaric killing of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth continue to cast a long dark shadow over my South Leicestershire constituency where these appalling crimes took place. Lynda and Dawn were both 15 years old when Pitchfork sexually assaulted and strangled them, ending their lives in the most unspeakable and terrible manner.
Most people rightly support a parole system, but they do question whether a person who has committed these types of crimes against women should ever be freed.
The brutality of Pitchfork’s crimes is not the only reason his case is well known. His was the very first case in English criminal law where DNA evidence was instrumental in leading to a conviction. The technology was pioneered at the University of Leicester, fatefully only a few miles from where Pitchfork undertook his monstrous activities. Since then, DNA technology has become a cornerstone of criminal investigations and convictions. It should be remembered that at the time of the murders Pitchfork avoided giving his DNA sample. Hundreds of local men were requested to give a sample during the police investigation, but Pitchfork deviously evaded capture by having a friend provide a sample in his name. It was only after his friend was overheard that Pitchfork was rumbled, arrested and convicted – had it not been for this, it is highly likely that Pitchfork would have gone on to murder more young innocent women.
His attempts to deceive the police and, of course, the heinous nature of his crimes have led many to conclude that he can never truly be rehabilitated, no matter the passage of time.
Immediately after the announcement was made to approve his release, I requested that the Secretary of State for Justice intervene and challenge the Parole Board’s flawed decision on the basis that it was irrational. It was reassuring that the Secretary of State listened to me and exercised his right to apply to the independent Parole Board to request it reconsider its decision.
Tuesday’s decision by the Parole Board to refuse the government’s challenge is to be deeply regretted. Pitchfork’s release has now cleared all internal processes and he is likely to be set free within a few short weeks. Once again, society asks, how can it be that a person who commits these types of repugnant crimes can ever be given their freedom. Public outrage cannot be put down to a "mob", it is the reasonable expression of a society that places great value on human life and which takes a stern view against those who commit the worse sort of sexual crimes against women. Pitchfork is a fit, healthy middle aged man; at 61, he has many years, possibly decades of freedom ahead, but what about his victims, their families and friends?
There is an opportunity before us to use this distressing experience to minimise the risk of any reoccurrence of such cases. I greatly welcome the government’s pledge to conduct a ‘root and branch’ review of the whole parole system. In light of the Pitchfork decision, I believe that the Parole Board needs to take greater steps towards making its practices and processes more transparent and inclusive. Greater weight should be placed on ensuring that the parole system is open to scrutiny, especially from victims of crime. Members of Parliament and other relevant civil society stakeholders could have a consultative role while, of course, respecting the independence of the Parole Board. For example, as the Member of Parliament for the area where Pitchfork committed his crimes, I have been told that as a condition of his release on licence there will be an exclusion zone applied to him; but, at no point have the Parole Board asked for my view or the views of my constituents about how far this exclusion zone might extend. Those with in depth local knowledge have not been asked to give a view; is it 100m from the location of the crimes or 500m or 1km, who knows? This leaves me as the local MP in the unenviable position of struggling to explain to my constituents how they can have confidence in the parole system if they are not aware of the plan in place to keep them safe.
The Parole Board’s decision to release Colin Pitchfork and reject the government’s challenge has understandably shaken the public’s faith in the system. But the government’s promise of a ‘root and branch’ review will provide that much needed opportunity to help avoid another Pitchfork type decision.
This article appeared in The Telegraph on 15th July 2021.