THE case of Suzy Lamplugh has long haunted society. The news that John Cannan is receiving end of life palliative care in the hospital wing of HMP Full Sutton in York, where he is serving a Life sentence, having been convicted of the rape and murder of Shirley Banks in 1989, led to a flurry of hopeful media speculation that he would confess to other crimes that he might have committed.

Specifically, that he would admit to his part in the abduction and murder of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in Fulham, West London in 1986. He has unusually been named by the Metropolitan Police as their “only suspect” in this historic crime – and Suzy’s brother Richard was widely quoted in the media encouraging Cannan to at long last reveal the truth before he died, and “finally let us know what happened”.

I was good friends with Suzy’s late mother Diana, and I also interviewed Richard last year at his home in Aberdeen for a documentary that I was making about the case. I totally understand why the Lamplugh family would cling to this last possible means of solving the mystery of what happened to Suzy in 1986 but, frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. I fear that Richard’s plea will fall on deaf ears, because to have any chance of success it would require Cannan to develop something that he has never possessed – a conscience.

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We might imagine that close to death murderers and serial killers would want to unburden themselves of their various crimes and misdemeanours and answer questions about what they did, how they did it (which is helpful for investigatory purposes) or even why they took the lives of other people, and thereafter also own up to other crimes for which they are widely suspected of having committed but for which they have never been arrested or charged.

However, that’s not what happened with Fred West, Harold Shipman, or Scotland’s most prolific serial killer Angus Sinclair. Nor is it likely to be what happens before Peter Tobin – who always seems to be at death’s door – shuffles off his mortal coil. Murderers and serial killers by and large take their dirty secrets to the grave.

The obvious question is why?

I have already suggested that this type of offender has no conscience – in other words they have no moral sense of right and wrong which might act as a guide to conduct their behaviour; they have no feeling of obligation that they should be good and behave in the interests of others, and so they only prioritise themselves and their own needs.

HeraldScotland: John CannanJohn Cannan

Of course confession is usually good for the confessor, but in the bizarre world of the psychology of multiple murderers to admit to something that they are widely suspected of takes from them their chance for immortality. By not owning up they retain the power over the narrative of a story and so, even after they have died, they remain connected, discussed – did they or didn’t they? – and so they continue to confuse and frustrate after they have died, as much as they did when they were alive. They are not interested in redemption, but only in remaining relevant.

Of course it is interesting to consider where this aspect of their personality comes from – why have they no conscience when, thankfully, most of us do? Is it in their nature, or have they been nurtured to be this way?

This is the fundamental question of Criminology – are we born or are we made? – and I have always answered this by suggesting that it is neither one nor the other but a messy combination of the two that is unique to that individual.

However, we are all biological beings – we are hearts and minds, genes and neurons – and so my sense is that we are born this way and that these underlying biological realities are thereafter shaped by how we have then been socialised. We are not the prisoners of our biology – which is why good parenting and good schools are so important – but we deal first of all with the deck of cards that has been handed down to us by our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

There’s also something broader and more cultural to consider. A conscience has been helpful to humans in evolutionary terms. Coming together and working as a group allowed individuals to hunt more effectively – and so catch more prey – and also offered greater safety from attack by predators, or others who might want to do an individual harm.

In this way developing a conscience that allowed you to consider others and not just yourself has been useful to us as a survival mechanism – so successful that those who do not have a conscience seem odd and mysterious and so we want to know why they don’t behave as we do, and why they wouldn’t make decisions that we would make in a heartbeat.

I tend to call this type of person a “psychopath”. In other words someone who might initially appear to be charming and persuasive – a risk taker who says and does things that you would never dream of saying or doing – but who, over time, you come to realise just doesn’t have the same emotional core that you and I do and who, as a consequence, takes but never gives, and always prioritises his own interests over everyone else’s.

That’s why murderers and serial killers rarely make death bed confessions because to confess would be something that they would reason might suit your needs and interests, but not their own; it might help you, or other people but that is of no consequence to them because they have never worried about you or other people in the past, and so why start now?

All life comes to an end, and we will all have our own way of making sense of that ending. So Cannan will die – as will Tobin – and I’d like to think that if there is a Hell, the Devil will find that he has two new residents. We might not get a death bed confession, but that’s a form of consolation isn’t it?

Emeritus Professor David Wilson