Five years have passed since Lucy Letby was first arrested at her home in Chester. Police banged on the door at 6am on a July morning in 2018, leading the killer nurse away in handcuffs as her father looked on.
Letby was remanded in custody after her third arrest in November 2020 and has been locked up ever since, spending a total of 1,012 days in four different prisons.
Due to the heinous nature of her crimes – Letby was found guilty of murdering seven newborns and attempting to murder six others at the Countess of Chester Hospital between 2015 and 2016 – she will spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Unlike other prisoners serving life sentences, however, Letby is has been given a “whole life order” – making her only the fourth female defendant in British history to have no hope of parole.
She joins the ranks of Rose West, serial killer Joanna Dennehy and the late Moors murderer Myra Hindley, all notorious for their depraved, remorseless acts.
Whole life orders, explains Tom Nicholson, a leading criminal barrister at Two Harcourt Buildings, are extremely rare, especially among women.
“While an ordinary life sentence comes with a minimum term the prisoner must serve before they can be considered for release, a whole life order is different,” he said. “It means that they will never be released or considered for release, by order of the court.
“Gender is not part of sentencing policy, but it’s inevitable that there is an inherent bias in the system. There will be judgements made around risk and mitigating factors, which may benefit female criminals more than male. It means that very few women have received this sort of order.”
According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there are currently around 70 whole-life prisoners in this country, among them Milly Dowler killer Levi Bellfield, Michael Adebolajo, the man who murdered British soldier Lee Rigby, Mark Bridger, who abducted and murdered five-year-old April Jones, and Wayne Couzens, the ex-police officer who kidnapped, raped and killed Sarah Everard in 2021.
The sentence – the most severe punishment under English criminal law – was introduced in 1983 as a way of condemning “exceptionally” severe crimes by defendants over the age of 21.
While prisoners sentenced to life serve an average of 16.5 years in prison, “whole-lifers” do not have any prospect of release as their case is not subject to periodic review by the Parole Board. Life, in this instance, really does mean life.
So what makes the Letby case suitable for such a stringent order?
There are, after all, plenty of female criminals – including Beverley Allitt, a former nurse dubbed “The Angel of Death” whose case is strikingly similar to Letby’s – who are serving ordinary life sentences, and will, one day, most likely be set free.
Mr Nicholson explained: “Most whole-life prisoners are murderers or multiple murderers. Not only that, but their crimes have extreme aggravating circumstances, such as those involving children or sexual offences, murders of police officers or murders linked with terrorism.
“It’s purely punitive. The offence is so bad that rehabilitation isn’t deemed possible. The rest of your life is forfeit; it’s all about punishment for committing such a terrible crime.”
By ensuring Letby spends the rest of her life in prison, the court is also making a judgement based on risk: if she were to be released in 16 years, aged 49, there is a chance she might re-offend.
But others aren’t so certain it’s the right punishment for such a young offender.
“The question of whether prison is even the best place for her, let alone for the rest of her natural life, has got to be asked,” said Yvonne Jewkes, professor of criminology at the University of Bath.
“We’ve become a more punitive nation since the likes of Beverley Allitt [who received 13 life sentences – but not a whole life order – for murdering infants under her care at a Lincolnshire hospital in 1991 and, having served 30 years, is now eligible for parole]. According to the Prison Reform Trust, the public believes that sentences are still too lenient, despite their lengths increasing over the last25 years, meaning Letby will likely be treated more harshly than someone who committed those crimes a decade ago.”
Indeed, sentencing data shows that 36 whole-life orders – over half those currently in force – have been issued since 2013, indicating their use is on the rise.
Letby is expected to start her sentence at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey, where she’s already served time, the largest women’s prison in Europe and home to some of Britain’s most sadistic killers.
Dennehy and West both spent time there before being transferred, and current inmates include Shauna Hoare, who killed teenager Becky Watts in 2015, and al-Qaeda fanatic Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010.
Bronzefield, which holds over 550 prisoners, made headlines three years ago amid reports inmates were being offered New Age-style activities including yoga, Pilates, tai chi and meditation at a new “holistic wellness centre” opened inside the maximum-security institution.
But Mark Leech, a prisons expert, ex-offender and editor of The Prison Oracle website, said Letby’s life will be far from comfortable.
“She’ll be what’s known as a ‘restricted status’ prisoner: the female equivalent of Category A,” he explained. “She’ll be on suicide watch and it will be some time before she gets to mingle with the main prison population – at least six months.”
Initially, he explained, Letby will be kept in the hospital wing of the prison – to assess her mental and physical health, as well as her safety from other prisoners – before being moved to a cell on her own.
“Her life for much of the next few years is going to be a lonely one. She’ll associate mostly with prison officers, her key worker in the prison and one or two cleaners – but much of that interaction will be through the hatch in her cell door.
“She won’t be able to do much, other than read newspapers or books and watch TV. She’ll get one hour of exercise by herself each day. She will be able to phone her family and receive visits from them, but the police will have to vet them first.”
Though Letby’s parents, Susan and John, attended every day of her nine-month trial at Manchester Crown Court, HMP Bronzefield is 212 miles – almost a four-hour drive – from the family home in Chester, making regular visits difficult.
Prof Jewkes said the main focus for the next few years will be Letby’s safety. “She may well have a price on her head. At best, she’ll be subjected to extreme bullying and intimidation. At worst, she might be in quite considerable physical danger.
“Every time she’s taken out of her cell she will have to be accompanied by several prison officers. As well as everything else, that’s an extremely costly undertaking.”
Eventually, she said, like West, who has over time been allowed to participate in reading groups, baking competitions and given freedom of movement around the grounds of HMP New Hall, West Yorkshire, Letby will be permitted some leisure time.
“At first, she’ll get a lot of psychological help and psychiatric treatment. It will be a while before she participates in group activities.
“But they will need to find ways to keep her busy – she might do an Open University degree, or an art therapy course, and she might be given certain small privileges, like access to a computer.”
Mr Leech says Letby is unlikely to make friends in prison. “There will almost certainly be people who want to get close to her, but for all the wrong reasons,” he added.
“Any relationship she does build is going nowhere, as every other prisoner in there will be released, at some point or another. This can be difficult mentally, as it compounds the sense of isolation.”
As for the future, he predicted it will be 20 years before she’s moved to a low-security prison.
Whole life orders may, like any other sentence, be overturned on appeal, but this has only happened in a handful of cases – and is highly unlikely in Letby’s. They may also be reversed on “exceptional compassionate grounds”, but, to date, these have never been found.
“She’s got to come to terms with the gravity of what she’s done, why she did it, and the devastation she’s caused to the lives of others,” said Mr Leech. “But she’s got the rest of her life to do that. She’s going nowhere: she will die behind bars.”