Yorkshire Ripper trial: Reporter recalls Sutcliffe case

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Media captionArchive report: Yorkshire Ripper convicted

It is exactly 30 years since Peter Sutcliffe was jailed for murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others, ending a five-year reign of terror in northern England. What was it like to cover one of the most famous trials of the 20th century?

Freelance reporter David St George, 70, has been working out of the press rooms at the famous Old Bailey since 1969, covering countless cases from the mundane to the truly shocking.

By the time Sutcliffe, a softly-spoken HGV driver, stepped into Court One for the start of his two-week trial in May 1981, his notoriety was already secured.

'Sorrowful figure'

He had spread fear among women in Leeds, Bradford and Manchester throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, when he was known as both the Yorkshire Ripper and Wearside Jack.

The former grave digger typically hit his victims over the head with a hammer, then stabbed or slashed them with a knife or sharpened screwdriver.

Image caption Sutcliffe cut a "sorrowful figure" in many ways, Mr St George said

For Mr St George, who was covering the trial for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror when their own reporters were not in court, it was unforgettable.

"Obviously it attracted vast, vast crowds, the gallery was packed, the seats in court were packed, and the press benches were packed," he said.

"Seats that were normally allocated to relatives of victims went to reporters."

He said a good number of people who packed the public gallery had camped overnight to guarantee they could watch the spectacle.

Most national newspapers had sent two or three staff each, and including international reporters there were about 30 or 40 journalists in court at any one time, he added.

"It was very moving because of the number of bodies involved," he said.

"Sutcliffe himself was a sorrowful figure in many ways, not very well built and towered over by four prison guards.

"His wife turned up quite a lot of times to lend what support she could, but it all stemmed on the medical and mental problems he may or may not have had.

"He really showed no emotion, no smiling, no laughing... and he had this funny softly-spoken voice.

"He was the most unlikely killer you've ever seen, he didn't fit the bill, but you never can tell."

'Voices from God'

Sutcliffe pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

The basis of this defence was that he had heard "voices from God" telling him to go on a mission to rid the streets of prostitutes.

Mr St George said there was a "certain inevitability" about the verdict because of the number of victims involved.

Much of the evidence went uncontested, he said, which meant there were relatively few witnesses heard.

"It was over pretty quickly for a trial of that magnitude. They had to agree 13 victims had been murdered by someone; he was the only candidate," he said.

Image caption Mr St George has been covering trials at the Old Bailey for more than 40 years

Sutcliffe was found guilty of murder on all counts and sentenced to 20 life sentences with a recommendation he serve a minimum of 30 years before he be considered for parole.

The judge said he was beyond redemption and hoped he would never leave prison.

With 30 years now served, the 65-year-old killer would have been eligible to apply for parole had the terms of his sentence not been changed last year.

The High Court ruled he must serve a "whole life" tariff which means he will die in jail, along with a small but exclusive club of three dozen or so inmates.

Mr St George, who has an office underneath the Old Bailey, has long and vivid memories of the famous oak-panelled court where he came face to face with the Ripper.

He has seen some of the most notorious figures in British criminal history pass through its doors, including the Krays and Dennis Nilsen, who killed at least 15 men and boys.

"Famous bums have sat on those hard wooden seats," he said.

"Nobody gets over excited or overwhelmed in Court Number One; it's staid and sensible. It's high drama without the shouting and swearing."

Describing the Sutcliffe case as "premier league", he said: "You got a sense at the time that this was something historic.

"Thirteen ladies is a lot of ladies. There's not been a case like it before or since."

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