Murder in mind
Are they mad or bad? What drives some people to kill? Maggie Gruner finds a forensic psychiatrist’s memoir a compelling read
18 February, 2021 — By Maggie Gruner
Dr Richard Taylor
AS forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard Taylor prepared a New Year’s Eve meal a missed incoming phone call made him increasingly uneasy.
He knew it signalled a serious occurrence, and when he finally spoke to the caller he learnt that a murder hunt was under way. Human body parts had been found in a bin and a former patient was being sought. The patient was Anthony Hardy, who became known as the “Camden Ripper.”
In a new book, The Mind of a Murderer, Dr Taylor provides compelling insight into his work with prisoners and patients including Hardy, Abu Hamza, the former Imam at Finsbury Park Mosque, and inmates of Holloway prison.
Dr Taylor “outs” himself as one of five experts who saw Anthony Hardy during 2002, the year of his notorious killings. Hardy had been charged with murder after the body of a woman, Rose White, was found in his Camden Town flat in January 2002. But a pathologist ruled that the likely cause of death was a heart attack and the murder charge was dropped.
Hardy, with a background of bipolar disorder, pleaded guilty to criminal damage of a neighbour’s door and was moved from prison to a psychiatric unit.
Assessing him, Dr Taylor and a colleague concluded that he could pose a risk of serious violence to women. But they had to work on the basis he’d had no hand in Rose White’s death, given the post-mortem findings.
Unbeknown to Dr Taylor, Hardy was released from psychiatric hospital in November 2002. He went on to kill Bridgette Maclennan and Elizabeth Valad. A torso wrapped in black bin liners and other remains were found in his flat and further body parts were discovered in bins near his home.
An inquiry found Hardy could not have been detained longer under the Mental Health Act on the basis of what the mental health professionals knew at the time of his release.
If the “inaccurate and negligent” post-mortem on Rose White had been performed correctly, Dr Taylor writes, “Hardy would have been serving life, with a likely tariff of at least 15 years, and never have been free to kill his two other victims later that year.”
The pathologist who performed the post-mortem was later struck off.
Hardy’s victims weighed heavily on Dr Taylor’s mind. He says homicides by patients are a forensic psychiatrist’s “worst nightmare”.
Most murders involve extremes of normal mental states such as anger, rage, fear or jealousy, but there can be a fine line between these states and mental disorder at the time of a killing.
Forensic psychiatrists are more concerned with the “whydunnit” than the “whodunnit”. They assess serious offenders, treat those with a mental disorder, give expert evidence at trial and for sentencing. Secure hospital or prison? Mad or bad – or a mixture of both? These are key questions they face.
The memoir, including case studies, draws on Dr Taylor’s 26-year career and sheds light on the minds of those charged with murder.
But he writes that “we will always struggle to make sense of terrible crimes such as Hardy’s”. He says the Camden Ripper “most likely channelled his resentment, misogyny and diabetic impotence into sexual sadism, humiliation and murder. The killing and body disposal was part of a perverse and sadistic need to exert control over life and death.”
By comparison, reading about Abu Hamza – convicted in the UK of incitement to murder and now serving a life sentence in the US for terrorism-related offences – almost provides light relief.
Dr Taylor, who managed medical and psychological problems impeding Hamza’s preparation for trial, found him “unfailingly polite and positively avuncular”. Hamza remained disarming during their further meetings in prison.
Pictures of Hamza with a hook over his eye fail to accurately portray him and neglect to understand his influence, Dr Taylor asserts. A better image is “the one of him with a neat black turban and aviator shades outside Finsbury Park Mosque. He is polite, intelligent and charming – and no doubt persuasive – and this is surely part of who he is and what he did.”
Holloway prison – now closed – had personal resonance for Dr Taylor, whose aunt was remanded in custody there in the late 1950s after smothering her five-month-old daughter. The aunt had postpartum psychosis. Many years later her other daughter, suffering depression, committed suicide.
“You don’t choose forensic psychiatry; forensic psychiatry chooses you,” Dr Taylor claims. He thinks his family history gave him sensitivity and curiosity about mental disturbance and human destructiveness.
We glimpse pivotal moments in the lives of some of the prisoners he assessed at Holloway: a pub landlady with bipolar disorder drinking heavily and dancing in her underwear in a garden, having left candles burning in her flat, resulting in a fire that killed her neighbour; a woman grabbing a kitchen knife and fatally stabbing her abusive partner.
Dr Taylor writes vividly, with plenty of human touches. He says recalling images from a crime scene polluted what should have been happy family moments. Exposure to crime made him more risk-averse, thinking twice about an after-dark trip to the cashpoint in Camden High Street.
But he says the enduring interest and intellectual challenge of his work, and the rewards of helping many patients recover, more than make up for the downside.
To combat the killing of women, and intimate partner abuse, he calls for measures including better relationship education for young men, and more protection for women from culturally sanctioned misogyny, abuse and violence.
With illicit drug abuse fuelling turf wars and knife killings, funding for drugs and alcohol services should be under the control of the NHS, he says, and availability of knives should be tackled.
He wants improved access to psychiatric assessment and treatment for those becoming mentally ill for the first time, and those relapsing, and more short-term psychiatric inpatient beds. Better treatment for all patients may prevent some psychotic murders.
The memoir shows there’s no room for complacency. Dr Taylor points out that, in the right circumstances, anyone can become a killer: “We are all just a psychotic episode away from murder.”
- The Mind of a Murderer. By Dr Richard Taylor, published by Wildfire, £20