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Jennifer O’Connell: Lucy Letby’s ‘beigeness’ has created a vacuum for lurid speculation

The need of online sleuths to eviscerate Letby is a distraction from more important issues

Lucy Letby is the most prolific child killer in modern Britain, found guilty in a Manchester court of the murder of seven infants and the attempted murder of six others – in the case of one little girl, trying on separate occasions two weeks apart to murder her. The judge at her sentencing described her “premeditation, calculation and cunning” as she “specifically targeted twins and, latterly, triplets.”

Her name is now being mentioned in the same sentence as those of Rose West and Myra Hindley. And yet, at the end of a 10-month trial, all that is really known about her could fit on to one of her now-famous Post-its. Her most notable feature appears to be the absence of any notable features. The picture that emerged of her in court was of a vague and formless forgettability. She was “nice Lucy” to her colleagues; “beige” and “vanilla” to police; “kind”, “goofy” or “soft” to her friends. To the judge she was a woman gripped by a morbid fascination with ill children and a “detached enthusiasm for the resuscitations”.

Psychopaths are gifted at presenting an acceptable public face and disguising their true selves. But the little we do know about Letby hardly fits the profile of a psychopath. Her inner life seems to have emerged only in sudden bursts as tight, angry little scrawls on those Post-its. Those observers most heavily invested in the trial – and there are legions – seized on them as proof of her “depraved thoughts and intentions”.

How did so many babies die before alarm bells were rung? What was really going on at that hospital? Why did it take so long for the hospital management to act on consultants’ concerns?

In reality they seem more like the workings of a confused, depressed, shame-ridden mind than an obviously murderous one. Found at her home in 2018, as her life was already spiralling, they contain an explicit “confession” of sorts: “I am evil. I did this” and “I killed them on purpose because I’m not good enough to care for them.” But even this isn’t clear-cut. On the same tiny piece of paper she wrote, “I haven’t done anything wrong”. Scrawled elsewhere are the words, “NO HOPE”, “DESPAIR”, “PANIC”, “FEAR”, “LOST” – not the kind of detached, narcissistic grandiosity normally associated with a murderous psychopath.

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At her sentencing, the judge said, “It is no part of my function to reach conclusions as to the underlying reason or reasons for your actions. Nor could I, for they are known only to you.”

Predictably, the internet’s hordes of true crime fetishists have no such qualms about arriving at wild conclusions. The speculation mounted during the 10 months of the trial and reached frenzied fever pitch in its final weeks. She turned to murder because she was overly doted upon by her parents. Or because she was in love with a married colleague. Or because she thrived on being part of the drama of being part of a crisis. Or, or, or.

In other corners of the internet, a separate group of people, including some claiming scientific expertise, insist she is innocent, the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.

The truth – the answer to the question of why so many babies died in that hospital unit while she was on duty – may never be known, even to her. But the insistence that there must be a reason – a single, neat why – detracts from the much more important question of how. How did so many babies die before alarm bells were rung? What was really going on at that hospital? Why did it take so long for the hospital management to act on consultants’ concerns? The picture painted at the trial was of a sometimes chaotic place, where sewage once backed up into the sinks, and families and consultants felt brushed off. Some of those questions will be addressed at a future inquiry, which families are asking to be upgraded to a statutory one.

A Spectator poll this week found that two-thirds of the public back the death penalty for Letby; they didn’t say whether they actually wanted her burnt at the pyre

It is unlikely that the TikTok sleuths or Reddit detectives will be content to wait for its conclusions. The fetish for true crime is hardly a new development, but the podcasting boom has given it a greater impetus. The 1997 trial of British nanny Louise Woodward, who was found guilty of the first degree murder of a child in her care and later had her conviction reduced to involuntary manslaughter, coincided with the early years of rolling TV news. Spurred on by the OJ Simpson trial two years before, this was the dawn of an era in which the public would be encouraged to feel personally invested in criminal trials. Woodward, like Letby, was subject to endless speculation about her state of mind (was she “frustrated”? Why did she seem so “cold”, so “remorseless”?)

The worst excesses of this sort of thing used to belong to tabloid culture, but traditional media are always tempered by the need to respect due process. Now the worst of it comes from the online influencers doing their make-up while casually discussing the latest developments in the Letby trial, the podcasters giving breathless blow-by-blow updates, the chat rooms where people appoint themselves experts by virtue of the fact that they once gave birth, or have “read everything about this”, or knew a girl who was “just like Letby”.

The compulsion to eviscerate Letby is not just inhumane; it is a distraction from the much more relevant questions. We will likely never know “why”, but it would certainly be helpful to know “how”. It is also a worrying indictment of a culture that demonises perpetrators and dehumanises victims in a manner that feels almost medieval. A Spectator poll this week found that two-thirds of the public back the death penalty for Letby; they didn’t say whether they actually wanted her burnt on a pyre.

Most importantly, it is an insult to the heartbroken families whose children’s short lives and tragic deaths have been turned into a ghoulish form of entertainment.