- Moves to secure the release of Myra Hindley forget that she is a serial killer writes BRIAN DEER
Myra Hindley used to be a sadistic child-killer, but she is all right now. True, in the early 1960s she and her then-boyfriend Ian Brady tortured and murdered at least five young people, aged 10 to 17, then buried their bodies on the Yorkshire moors. But Hindley has done her time and, thanks to the British penal system, her life has been turned around.
It is this broad thesis that last week caused the Rev Peter Timms, a former prison governor, to launch a publicity crusade for the all-new Myra Hindley. In syndicated pictures released through an agency, Hindley is shown as a matronly scholar, receiving an Open University degree in a specially staged Cookham Wood jail ceremony - and petting the governor's dogs.
For the tabloid press, the pictures were the first piece of news about the Moors murderers since the row last month over the controversial autobiography of Chief Superintendant Peter Topping. This book reports on confidential police interviews with Hindley and Brady, and has prompted legal action by the Manchester police committee.
But the latest story brings a sharper point to our understanding of Hindley. She is currently working on her own book about her crimes and though she is unlikely to find a home secretary willing to let her gain from publication, Hindley clearly now believes that she is on the road to rehabilitation. It may take years, but she has plenty of time on her hands.
Although her solicitor, Andrew McCooey, claims she is not seeking release and Timms bluntly denies that he is co-ordinating a campaign for her parole, the message both are pushing to the public is that the Moors murderess has changed.
"I hoped the pictures would get wide publication, so people could look at her as she is now and see how she was 25 years ago and see how she has changed," says Timms, one of a group of influential Hindley supporters who attended her degree award. "The evidence of these photographs speaks for itself."
Others at the ceremony (which curiously took place a decade after she actually obtained her BA humanities degree) included Lord Longford - who has long been Hindley's most eloquent apologist - and David Astor, formerly the owner of the Observer newspaper.
"She is very intelligent and sensible and has a sense of humour," says Astor, who has visited Hindley in prison about a dozen times. "She has something about her that makes you feel that she has been through a great tragedy. She is a brave woman who stands the pressure very well."
Such sentiments find little support in the ordinary public mind. On Friday, viewers of BBC television's Kilroy discussion programme voted by a margin of about 50 to 1 against Hindley being released, in spite of the presence on the show of McCooey, Timms and Longford. The peer denounced his angry critics as being "ignoramuses".
But Longford's support for Hindley and Brady has always been rather odd. In December 1969, he told an astonished House of Lords that Brady was an example of the "redeemability of man" and urged that social visits between the pair should be allowed under prison rules. "On ethics we are now more or less in agreement," he said of Brady, after corresponding with him at length.
Twenty years later, those words appear bizarre. The nature of the pair's repeated and premeditated crimes against children - which involved kidnapping, torturing, photographing, sexually assaulting, tape-recording and strangling or hacking them to death - are much better understood. In America, such crimes had acquired the serial killer tag and patterns among offenders have emerged.
In the United States, there have been scores of such murderers-without-motive since the 1966 Moors trial - and each case has added to a frightening picture into which the revamped Hindley fits. One of the most celebrated and typical was Ted Bundy, who was executed for killing about 60 women. He was an intelligent, college-educated, good-looking person whose only real quirk was to kill.
Diagnosable mental illness is rarely to be found in these killers. They are commonly ordinary, but devious people who do not waiver under pressure or feel any guilt about their crimes. Since there is no explanation for their compulsive behaviour in the first place, those who have studied them believe that no matter how many years elapse, they always keep their power to kill.
"Usually these crimes are carried out by sociopaths who cannot at an advanced age gain a conscience," says Jack Levin, professor of sociology at Northeastern University, Boston, who has studied hundreds of such killers. "A conscience develops early in life and you don't acquire it at, say, 43, or 52. Intelligence and education have nothing to do with it."
He also rejects assumptions being circulated by Hindley's supporters that she was never as bad as Brady. Although they have not challenged the murder verdicts handed down by Chester Assizes in May 1966, the supporters suggest she was just a simple, 23-year-old typist who was "led on" by her sinister lover. "That's just typical of what everyone always says whenever there is a sexual killing involving a man and a woman," Levin retorts.
There is no shortage of evidence to support the points he makes. When Hindley was arrested, charged and brought to court, she remained unco-operative and unrepentant throughout. And in spite of her recent protestations of remorse, it was almost two decades before she offered information to the police - and then only when guided by the Rev Timms.
Her miraculous conversion by the Methodist minister provokes wry mirth from the police. "We spent a lot of time together and I have to say she was an evil girl and I cannot see how she could change," says retired Detective Chief Superintendant Arthur Benfield, who arrested and charged the pair. "If you ask me who was most responsible for what they did I'd say it was six of one and half a dozen of the other."
Brady, now 50, is undoubtedly mad and is likely to remain for the rest of his life at Park Lane special hospital. But the campaign for Hindley gathers pace, with even hard-nosed observers of the Moors murder trial joining her graduation ceremony guests in arguing that prison life has helped her to mature and that she could soon be safely set free.
"Theirs have to be the vilest crimes ever committed, but you have got to believe that prisons are not just about vengeance, but about reform," says Jim Davies, a Daily Express writer, who still thinks of the day when the recording of 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was played to the Chester court. "It has to be time seriously to consider releasing her. But I think if I heard those tapes again, I might think otherwise."