Lucy Letby: it is not being ‘normal’ that makes her crimes so hard to understand

In seeking to understand the crimes of Lucy Letby, the neonatal nurse who murdered seven babies in her care, a fixation about how ‘ordinary’ she appears to be has emerged. At times like this, we seek answers, which perhaps explains the vague sense that understanding this apparent inconsistency can teach us a lesson for the future. But that is a circle that cannot be squared.

Letby was sentenced to whole life imprisonment for the murders of seven babies carried out while she worked at Countess of Chester Hospital, in north-west England. She was found guilty of the attempted murder of six other babies and is suspected of having harmed more. She is variously described as a ‘serial killer’ and a ‘serial killer nurse’. Letby meets the generally accepted criminological definition of a serial killer – that is, someone who commits three or more murders on separate occasions that are not for revenge or material gain.

Everyday understandings of serial killing are consistent with the criminological definition and, arguably, the ‘serial killer’ is a compelling example of the overlap – and perhaps cross-pollination – between the academic and wider understandings of crime.

Both academic and wider understandings of serial killing are shaped by portrayals and archetypes from fiction, film, television and true crime podcasts and documentaries. The ubiquity of portrayals of serial killers mean we reach for certain stock explanations of their actions.

Quoting police officers involved in the investigation and former colleagues of Letby, news articles describe her as ‘average’ and ‘beige’. Shock and confusion abound about the crimes of an ‘ordinary’ young woman who did not stand out in terms of character or ability.

The puzzle these descriptions create is how a ‘serial killer nurse’ could possibly be someone so unremarkable. Letby lived in a three-bedroom semi-detached house, with a ‘happy Prosecco season’ sign adorning the wall of her kitchen and a collection of soft toys in her bedroom. Although motives were suggested by the prosecution during her trial, they feel unsatisfactory.

Looking for answers in the wrong place

Our inability to parse ‘satisfying’ explanations for Letby’s actions relates to her departure from accepted cultural scripts of serial killing. A prominent serial killer script is that of perceived deviance and transgression, whereby something pathological about the killer accounts for their personality and actions.

Frequently, this pathology is along the lines of mental illness, as in one of the classic templates for modern cultural scripts of serial killing, Norman Bates in the film Psycho. Another recurrent portrayal is the serial killer who is motivated by sexual perversion. Lucy Letby’s apparent normality means she cannot be read through this script.

The fact that she is a woman while serial killers are overwhelmingly male adds to this (although serial killing by women, including nurses, is not without precedent).

Popular culture has taught us that a serial killer is a certain type of person. They are often even glamorised in films and TV shows. In his 1996 memoir My Dark Places, the novelist James Ellroy comments on the figure of the serial killer in 1990s popular culture: “Serial killers were very unprosaic. They were hip, slick and cool.”

Ellroy’s comment gets to the heart of why Lucy Letby feels like a dissonant serial killer. She is prosaic. But this is a red herring. We may have absorbed tropes about serial killers but that does not mean we understand them or their motives in any more depth than we understand why Letby killed.

There is nothing truly conclusive about saying someone killed for power or sexual gratification, just as there is nothing conclusive about any of the explanations offered for Letby’s actions. Our belief that we understand reasons for serial killing – and thereby deviations from those reasons such as appearing ‘ordinary’ – is based on familiar but incomplete narratives.

Our cultural scripts about serial killers do not offer good explanations for their crimes. In reality, it is incredibly unusual for someone like Lucy Letby to be a serial killer because it is incredibly unusual for anyone to be a serial killer.

Lizzie Seal, Professor of Criminology, University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

What do you think about Lucy Letby? Do we glamorise serial killers? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: Australia most at risk of cybercrime

The Conversation
The Conversation
The Conversation Australia and New Zealand is a unique collaboration between academics and journalists that is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis.


  1. The Conversation Australia and New Zealand claims to publish research-based news and analysis collated between academics and journalists. The reason why Lucy Letby killed seven babies cannot be determined by researching other serial killers all with different motives or from ill-informed advice/education, or mental illness.
    We live in a new era where grown men and women do not know how to set and measure the Time on a watch, where children are not taught right from wrong, where the concept of keeping Law and Order is irretrievably broken down, making it impossible to distinguish between true facts and deliberate lies. How then can anyone be judged, hung and quartered in good faith on the hearsay of the Press?
    Where there is no proof of Intent the verdict must be Accidental, NOT based on the POTENTIAL to commit a crime as Lindy Chamberlin was charged and convicted of murdering her own baby then imprisoned for six years. Lindy Chamberlin sufferred a gross mis-carriage of Justice that shocked the World, yet it was not the worst case of its kind if you care to research the facts.

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