Professor David Wilson “Are you going to go up and visit?” I asked Graham, over a coffee in the university refectory. “He must be in his late nineties by now” I added, almost as an afterthought, even though I knew that his age – and by implication that he is getting closer to death – would make little difference to what he would or would not say.

“He” is a well-known predatory paedophile, whom I am choosing not to name to protect his victims and their families, convicted of the murder of a child and who is currently serving his sentence in a maximum security jail in Yorkshire.

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Graham, who had just back from working with the FBI in Washington, has built up a relationship with this offender and has interviewed him several times in the past. We both remain convinced that he has committed several more murders of children and it would be good to see if he is prepared to talk about all of this before he shuffles off his mortal coil.

Perhaps you think that this is what offenders close to the end of their lives might do. They “spill the beans”; “cough” to the other crimes that they have committed; and by doing so they “get things off their chest” through a “death bed confession” – all prior to meeting “their maker”. This in turn helps to provide closure for the families of their victims who can, perhaps for the first time, truly understand what had happened to their loved one.

It all seems so rational and, almost inevitably, this form of last gasp admission has become the stuff of fiction – a device to allow unsolved mysteries to be resolved and the narrative to neatly end.

If only it was true.

If this was what happened in reality we would now know where the body of Margaret Fleming was buried because Edward Cairney who, along with Avril Jones was convicted of her murder in 2019, died in HMP Edinburgh last month, and so if this type of death bed confession really happened he should have admitted to where he had disposed of Margaret’s remains before he took his last breath.

Of course, he said nothing at all and sadly this silence – or often a continued denial of guilt – is the reality of what happens with prisoners suspected of further crimes who are close to death, or who have information which would be of use in other ways.

That’s why we don’t know what happened to Renee and Andrew MacRae, who disappeared in 1976 because William McDowell, who was eventually convicted of their murder in 2022, died in prison in February this year still maintaining his innocence. Nor did Peter Tobin ever say anything about the many other crimes that he might have committed, prior to his death in 2022 and so too Alexander Gartshore, who died in 2006, could never bring himself to admit that he had in fact murdered Moira Anderson, as many people believe, in Coatbridge in 1957.

Why does this type of offender take their secret to the grave?

The answer to this question involves several different but interconnected reasons. Chief amongst these is that, despite being in prison, the offender often maintains connections to the community where he once lived and where his victim was murdered and perhaps even still has family living in that community.

The Herald: Moira AndersonMoira Anderson (Image: free)

A death bed confession would make it difficult for those connections or family members, especially if they also believe that in fact the murderer was wrongly convicted. The murderer’s death bed silence is therefore a means to support others who have been left behind, especially in circumstances where the killer has “sworn on their life” to family and friends that they did not commit the crime – no matter what decision a jury has reached.

As far as I am aware, Tobin did not have family who maintained connections with him in prison, but he would have maintained silence for a different reason – he liked to be in control; he enjoyed having power. Taking his secrets to the grave was merely another demonstration of this aspect of his underlying personality, with the added benefit that it has ensured that we are still talking about him.

Was he “Bible John”? How many women might he have killed? 48? Questions such as these and the fact that they cannot be answered definitively therefore offer to him a form of immortality and an infamy which continues even after his death. And remember, Tobin never showed empathy whilst he was alive and always pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charges that he faced at court.

It’s frankly therefore a bit of a stretch to imagine that he would have cared enough to have admitted to crimes that the criminal justice system could not prove and which he might have got away with. Far better, he would have reasoned, to keep everyone guessing and therefore talking about him.

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Does this type of offender actually believe in God, or in a life after death? Perhaps the better question to ask is does this type of offender believe in Hell? Of course not for, if they did, they wouldn’t have murdered in the first place.

They do not have a moral code that is shaped by religion or faith and, I have to be honest, I am often suspicious of those offenders who decide that they have “found God” whilst in prison. This type of offender in my experience has no shame.

The result is that they do not need confession on their death bed prior to meeting “their maker”, because not only are they not ashamed of what they have done but they also see themselves as God-like and omnipotent – after all, they have decided through their actions who should live and who should die.

I look at Graham who has by now finished his coffee. “Worth a try,” he says, although we both know that it’s unlikely to be successful no matter what you might see at the movies.