David Wilson: The legacy of Ipswich

Steve Wright's conviction must mark the beginning of our engagement with some difficult questions

As I watched Steve Wright being driven away from Ipswich crown court to begin his life sentence I detected a sense that people had started to draw a line under this awful, unsettling case: the killer had been caught, he was a "monster", he would die in prison, and justice had been done for the victims' families.

The local police, the crown prosecution service, the council, and representatives from drug action teams or outreach programmes that worked with women involved in prostitution all seemed to be on message: "it's over".

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are there some very basic questions that still need to be answered but it's also our responsibility to keep the issues that dominated these five murders at the forefront of the public policy debate. Chief among them is the nature and extent of the drugs economy that drives street prostitution and what we should do about it, and our own archaic approach to women who work in the sex industry. Despite what I heard claimed, there are still women selling sexual services in Ipswich while others have gone to Norwich.

But what of the questions that need to be answered? These range from the very specific to the general. For instance, has Steve Wright killed before? The answer would undoubtedly seem to be yes. It is very unusual for a serial killer to begin a killing spree at 48, and the care and organisation with which he disposed of the bodies of Tania Nicol and Gemma Adams, his first two victims, indicates prior knowledge about how to deal with a dead body. We might also question why Wright started to kill, if only in the hope of gaining some insight so as to prevent others from following a similar path, rather than simply branding him "evil".

Nor has there been enough debate about the fact that what actually caught Steve Wright was a DNA sample that he had given as a result of his arrest for a theft from a previous employer. Our national DNA database, the oldest and largest in the world, with one in 20 of the British population's DNA registered, proved its worth with Wright's conviction. But should we not also begin to question just how far we are prepared to go with DNA registrations, and at least try to understand how the latest forensic techniques - in particular low copy number - are in danger of pushing the science too far, too quickly?

Given our society's general reluctance to engage with anything scientific, perhaps we might prefer to consider whether women who sell sexual services would be better protected if they operated within managed zones, or if they would be less likely to victims of assault and murder if we started to target their pimps and punters.

Of course these bigger questions also relate to serial killing, and in particular why it is that British serial killers only ever target their victims from within five groups - prostitutes, the elderly, babies and infants, gay men, and young people leaving home. What is it that creates vulnerability within these groups, and what could we do as a society to reduce this vulnerability, so as to make it much harder for serial killers to kill and kill again? If we don't think about these issues there will be other Steve Wrights. My own research suggests that in any given year, there will be two active serial killers at large in Britain.

There is much work yet to do if we want to make our community safer for those who have historically fallen victim to serial killers, and much to consider in what this case tells us about British society now - and how it should develop.

· Professor David Wilson's new book (co-written with Paul Harrison) Hunting Evil: Inside the Ipswich Serial Murders will be published next month david.wilson@uce.ac.uk


David Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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