December 24, 2008

Criminal profiling strikes out again

British case also features missteps by police, prosecutors, tabloid media

In death, Rachel Nickell became an icon of the sexual brutalization of women. The London model was just 23 in July of 1992, when she was strolling across Wimbledon Common with her 2-year-old son and was stabbed 49 times, sexually abused, and almost decapitated in a frenzied, daylight attack.

As pressured mounted to solve the horrific murder and several other similar crimes, detectives turned to Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist with near-mythic stature in the field of criminal profiling.

Britton was suspicious of Colin Stagg, a lonely dog lover who had popped up on police radar when he replied to an ad in a lonely hearts magazine. With Britton’s help, police set a trap. They had a policewoman, "Lizzie James," befriend Stagg. Lizzie tried but failed to get Stagg to admit to killing Nickell. A judge threw out the case based on the illegality of the sting operation, but Stagg became Britain’s premiere pariah, villainized by the tabloid press as a black magic practitioner who had "gotten away with murder."

Britton, meanwhile, used the case to bolster his professional reputation, and featured it in his boastful 1998 autobiography, "The Jigsaw Man."

But Britton had made a catastrophic blunder. In pursuing his pet theory, he failed to connect the killing of Nickells and another young woman either to each other or to the "Green Chain rapes," a series of similar, frenzied, random knife attacks on women in the time period leading up Nickell's murder.

As forensic psychology professor Laurence Alison pointed out, "Frenzied random motiveless knife attacks on women are rare. Even more unusual are frenzied, random knife attacks on women with their young children present. Here was Britton with two of them under his nose and no one noticed."

Years later, the high-profile case came to a close when a paranoid schizophrenic named Robert Napper was tied to the killing by DNA evidence. Last week, Napper pleaded diminished responsibility due to mental illness and was sentenced to an indefinite term in a high-security hospital. He is suspected in at least 106 crimes involving 86 women.

Critics say that Nickell and other women would have been saved if police and prosecutors had followed all leads rather than blindly pursuing an innocent man. Napper came onto police radar screens at least eight times dating back to 1989. Some tipsters specifically linked him to the sexual assaults; beat cops in one incident described him in their notes as "strange, abnormal, should be considered as a possible rapist," and his own mother turned him in for rape. Astonishingly, police still did not pursue him for Nickell's murder even after DNA tests in 1994 tied him to the Green Chain rapes in 1994.

The case features the same type of investigative tunnel vision and prosecutorial stubborness we saw in the Norfolk Four case (see my blog post here) as well as the dangers of reliance on alluring but pseudoscientific techniques such as criminal profiling.

As one commentator put it, "Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of 'deviant interests' and 'sexual dysfunctions,' he sounded fatally convincing."

After his acquittal, Stagg filed a misconduct complaint against Britton with the British Psychological Society, but the case was dismissed in 2002, two years before the DNA evidence conclusively proved Stagg's innocence.

Photos (from top): Rachel Nickell (murder victim), Paul Britton (profiler), Colin Stagg (innocent man), Robert Napper (serial killer).

Laurence Alison, chair of forensic psychology at Liverpool University, has a new book on the Napper case, Killer in the Shadows. Journalist Ted Hynds co-authored Stagg's account, Pariah. The Guardian of London has full coverage of the Nickells case. My previous articles on criminal profiling are here.

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