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Understanding Fred and Rose West: An interview with Leo Goatley

Leo Goatley is a sole practitioner and ULaw alumnus. From 1992 to 2004 Leo represented one of the most notorious women in British criminal history, Rose West.

By Cara Fielder. Published 15 August 2019. Last updated 13 August 2021.

Rose West, and her husband Fred were charged with the murder of twelve women and girls over a period of twenty years. Fred committed suicide while awaiting trial but Rose went on to be convicted of ten murders. In his forthcoming book, Understanding Fred and Rose West: Noose, Lamella and the Gilded Cage, Leo looks back at his time working on the case that changed his life and shocked a nation. We caught up with Leo to get an insight into working on such a high-profile case and how it inspired his writing.

The West case was one of the most disturbing serial murder cases in British criminal history. Murder most foul, but it seems even foulness is relative. The case is appalling on a number of levels: The horrific details of the offences, the juxtaposition of ordinary day to day routine family life with depraved, sadistic sex, torture and murder of innocent young women, who were just starting out on their lives, the shear persistence of the offending that remained undetected for so many years and the cruel unknowing that had to be painfully borne by the victims loved ones. The nation was scarred as the details emerged. There was a sense of an unwelcome mirror held up to society, if it ever needed to be, reminding us of just what depths humankind can sink.

For twelve years I acted for Rose West as her solicitor and for a time represented both Rose and Fred West in relation to child care proceedings. I acted for Rose in all stages of the numerous criminal allegations brought against her from July 1992 through to the serial murder trial at Winchester Crown Court in October and November of 1995, then the Appeal in the Lord Chief Justice's court in 1996 and a subsequent application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2001. It was only Rose who stood trial and then was convicted of the murder of ten young women. Fred West committed suicide while awaiting trial.

Strange as it may seem I had always viewed Rose West as a reasonable person to deal with. If my view of her had really been so demeaning as the press has portrayed; if in my mind I had characterised her as a monster it would have been impossible to continue to act. But that was not the view I had formed of her. She presented as sociable, usually calm and most important of all she vehemently denied the nightmarish catalogue of allegations set out on the indictment. She was not a difficult client. When initially remanded in custody at Pucklechurch near Bristol, she had come under the wing of kindly old nun, whose ministry was simply to be a friend and pray with prisoners. This nun was non-judgemental and I have no doubt Rose had a genuine affection for her, holding her in high esteem. It was her who gave Rose the plastic rosary beads that she kept throughout her trial. Her parting from the nun was one of the reasons why she became so distressed when moved north to HMP Durham following the committal proceedings at Dursley magistrates court in February 1994.

I spent hundreds of hours in interview and attendance with Rose West before, during and after her trial and appeal; travelling to Durham to visit her in prison on many occasions. Provided I did not venture to take her out of her comfort zone she was straightforward to deal with, better than many I have represented. Therein lies one of the fault lines both in Rose as a person and the difficulty it presented in the preparation of her case. While over time she developed a platonic affection for me, which she sometimes expressed in her letters, she was also a woman who intuitively chose not to volunteer information about a darker side to her personality, even where I explained that it would help her case. She was content enough to engage on the level of easy conversation, but the secrets that she undoubtedly coveted remained largely locked away in some part of her mind and were only revisited by her after her trial.

While the police investigation into the West murders was thorough and deservedly earned commendation for the way it was conducted, it is fair to say that even the officers were not satisfied that the full extent of the case had been fully excavated and resolved. There is much that remains a mystery. There are many questions that will not go away. In giving my account as her defence solicitor I revisit and review the many conversations that we had. I have also reviewed available evidence relating to the victims and have given close scrutiny to the early years and the disappearance in 1968 of a young woman who did not appear on the indictments of either Fred or Rose West. Her file remains open as that of an unsolved missing person.

Due process in criminal law is designed to effectively and fairly bring perpetrators of offences to account for their crimes while acquitting those who are not guilty. This requires a presumption of innocence until otherwise proved guilty. The precise elements that need to be established for a jury to properly deliberate necessitate application of substantive law and the rules of evidence and procedure and an adherence to those facts that address those questions that are relevant. This means there are many questions, which though very interesting, nevertheless, a court of law will not enquire into.

At the end of criminal proceedings you often hear police officers and lawyers talking of justice being served, of drawing a line in the sand, of giving closure to the family, of being able to move on. The reality is often very different. Serious crimes change people's lives forever, sometimes victims survive, sometimes they do not and their loved ones must carry the terrible psychological luggage for the rest of their lives. There are no winners. The families of the perpetrators are just as damaged and the ensuing generations burdened with the chilling resonating knowledge of some terrible episode for which their relative was responsible.

It is not just DNA that parents pass onto their children, the psychological imprint of their nurturing will mediate in their lives and in a moderated form resonate through the generations. This of course does not mean at all that the child of a serial killer will follow suit. On the contrary, it is likely to precipitate a dialectical process where the mind-numbing knowledge of the sins of parents is the antithesis of the social norms school children may aspire to, thereby triggering an instinctive repulsion.

And there remain all the interminable, seemingly unfathomable questions that conspire to deny the closure people so long for. It is a complex process. Initially, revenge and punishment of the offender offers a sense of justice, it gives a temporary sense of relief. But this is often short-lived and the inner destruction ploughs through the living broken lives.

In my book I have considered the questions of how and why Fred and Rose West developed into the monsters that together committed such dreadful acts. Those are questions that a court of law does not enquire into. It is perhaps a paradox that the sharp logic and economy of the law also must serve to curtail a wider discourse.

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