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Peter Coonan loses conviction review

14 January 2011

Peter Coonan has lost his appeal against the 1981 ruling that sentenced him to life imprisonment for the murders of 13 women.

Convicting Sutcliffe, as he was then called, the jury at the time rejected the partial defence of diminished responsibility and the judge sentenced him to a whole life term.

As was the practice at the time Mr Justice Boreham made a recommendation for the consideration of the secretary of state, proposing that in this case the minimum term should be 30 years before Coonan could be considered for parole.

The question was still being considered in 1997 when the then home secretary sought a recommendation from the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham.

In the end no decision was taken despite recommendations by Lord Bingham to set the minimum to 35 years and a subsequent recommendation by Boreham J that this was “one of the rare cases where the offences were so heinous and the perpetrator so dangerous that life should mean life".

The question was referred to the High Court under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

With only months to go before the initial 30-year recommendation would have expired, Mr Justice Mitting settled the matter in July last year, saying Coonan should be subject to a whole life minimum term and should, in effect, never be released.

Peter Coonan sought leave to appeal that decision and asked the court to consider mitigating circumstances on grounds of diminished responsibility, a defence that had not been upheld in the original trial.

Dismissing Coonan’s appeal, the Lord Chief Justice said in R v Coonan [2011] EWCA 5: “The sheer abnormality of his actions themselves suggest some element of mental disorder, and this no doubt formed part of Lord Bingham’s reasoning when he observed that the appellant’s mental state was 'disturbed' when he committed these crimes.

“There is however no reason to conclude that the appellant’s claim that he genuinely believed that he was acting under divine instruction to fulfil God’s will carries any greater conviction now than it did when it was rejected by the jury.

“In any event, although the bare recital of these offences, particularly recited one following another, may by the simple process of virtual repetition diminish their impact, when taken on their own, many of them, and more realistically, an examination of the entire catalogue of the offences as a whole demonstrate that this was criminal conduct at the extreme end of horror.

“Each of the attempted murders, as well as each of the murder offences, taken on its own was a dreadful crime of utmost brutality: taking all the offences together we have been considering an accumulation of criminality of exceptional magnitude which went far beyond the legislative criteria for a whole life order. Even accepting that an element of mental disturbance was intrinsic to the commission of these crimes, the interests of justice require nothing less than a whole life order. That is the only available punishment proportionate to these crimes.”

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