The Railway Killers: How ground-breaking psychological methods helped catch murderers

Trailer for new Channel 4 drama Deceit

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Tonight Channel 5 will broadcast the first episode of a three-part documentary The Railway Killers at 9pm, which explores the impact of the crimes on their community, as well as the revelation of the killers’ identities.

The programme will take the viewer step by step through the infamous case which took 14 years to close and will feature dramatic reconstructions and testimonies from police officers, and the victims’ friends.

In December 1985, Alison Day disappeared after getting off a train at Hackney Wick station.

Over the next six months, two more women were snatched at stations in the south east before rumours began to circulate that a serial killer, linked to a series of sex attacks across London, was stalking the railways.

Ultimately, in 1988, John Duffy was found guilty of some of the railway rapes and murders and sentenced to life in prison.

But still, the case was never completely closed, with the rape victims who survived speaking of two men who attacked them, until from his prison cell, in 1999 Duffy made a remarkable confession.

He admitted to the crimes for which he was found guilty in 1988, confessed to more unsolved sex crimes and crucially, named his accomplice, David Mulcahy, who was convicted of three murders and seven rapes and handed three life sentences in 2000.

However, Duffy was only convicted in the first place thanks to revolutionary psychology techniques pioneered by Dr David Canter.

Dr Canter, who had been working as a geographical psychologist at the time, was brought in from the University of Surrey to help with the police investigation.

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It was to be the first use of “psychological offender profiling” in Britain and proved extremely successful.

The psychologist examined the details of each crime and built up a profile of the attacker’s personality, habits and traits, whilst quite crucially hypothesising where the culprit might live.

This profile ultimately contributed to Duffy being caught and convicted, after the rapist was arrested while following a woman in a secluded park, before being questioned and charged on all counts.

When Duffy went on trial in February 1988, he was convicted of two murders and four rapes, yet was at the time, acquitted of raping and killing Anne Lock.

Much was made of the psychological profile constructed by Dr Canter, as Duffy fitted 13 of the 17 observations he had predicted regarding the attacker’s lifestyle and habits.

Dr Canter’s assessment proved to be uncannily accurate, and such profiling became commonplace in policing thereafter.

Yet the psychologist stressed that the most important data he provided was the geography of where the culprit might live, rather than the detailed character traits he successfully deduced.

Dr Canter told the Guardian: “When I started investigative psychology, I wanted it to engage directly with the police investigative and decision-making process.

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“The work should be about understanding how the police work and providing them with useful tools to filter data in the course of an investigation; it’s not about being an outside expert offering a Sherlock Holmes-like opinion that the police decide how best to use.”

After Dr Canter’s helped crack one of the most infamous cases in British history, psychological assessments were in vogue in British investigations, until the devastating collapse of the Rachel Nickell case in 1994.

Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist with no academic track record, advised police to pursue a controversial honeytrap method that culminated in the collapse of the Colin Stagg’s trial for Rachel’s murder.

The police fixated on Mr Stagg on Mr Britton’s advice, only for the suspect to be awarded with £706,000 worth of compensation by the Home Office after a number of police blunders wrongly implicated him.

This came after Robert Napper, aged 42, pled guilty to Rachel’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility in December 2008.

Watch The Railway Killers tonight on Channel 5 at 9pm.
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