Whole life order killers: every female UK criminal with no chance of parole as Lucy Letby awaits sentence

If Lucy Letby is given a whole life order she will become only the fourth woman to receive such a sentence
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Killer nurse Lucy Letby, who was convicted of the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of seven more, will be sentenced on Monday. She is guaranteed at least a life sentence because of the murder conviction, but she could be handed a whole life order.

A whole life order, previously called a whole life tariff, ensures that the person sentenced would spend the rest of their lives behind bars as they would never be eligible for release. It is the most severe sentence that can be passed in UK law.

Harold Shipman, like Letby, was a medical practitioner who became a murderer - he was convicted of the murder of 15 elderly patients under his care, though the true number of his victims is estimated to be around 250. Shipman was handed a whole life order in 2000, though he killed himself in his prison cell four years later.

But not all British serial killers actually receive full life sentences - Beverley Allitt, a nurse who killed four infants and tried to kill a further three, was ordered to serve a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison when she was sentenced in 1991. She is set to be released next year.

First introduced in 1983, whole life orders have been handed down to around 100 criminals in the last four decades, and only three women have received such a sentence. If Letby is given a whole life order on Monday, and due to the severity of her crimes that it is a very real possibility, she will become the fourth woman in British history to receive the sentence and will join the two living female killers still serving their life terms.

A court sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Lucy Letby, a nurse found guilty of killing six babies in a trial at Manchester Crown Court. (Picture: PA)A court sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Lucy Letby, a nurse found guilty of killing six babies in a trial at Manchester Crown Court. (Picture: PA)
A court sketch by Elizabeth Cook of Lucy Letby, a nurse found guilty of killing six babies in a trial at Manchester Crown Court. (Picture: PA)

Which women have been given whole life orders?

Myra Hindley

One of the Moors Moors Murderers, along with her boyfriend Ian Brady, the pair were involved in the murders of five young people aged between 10 and 17 in the 1960s. She was initially convicted for the murder of two victims and an accessory to a third. 

Hindley’s conviction came six months after the abolition of the death penalty in the UK, and her trial judge recommended she be given a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years to be served. Her tariff was then increased to 30 years in 1985.

In 1986 she and Brady confessed to two more murders, and in 1990 her sentence was increased to a whole life order, becoming the first woman in British criminal history to receive such a sentence. Brady was given the same sentence in 1994. Hindley appealed the order three times but it was upheld, and she died in prison in 2002. From 1985 Brady served his sentence in a mental hospital where he died in 2017. 

Moors murderer Myra Hindley was the first woman to be given a whole life orderMoors murderer Myra Hindley was the first woman to be given a whole life order
Moors murderer Myra Hindley was the first woman to be given a whole life order

Rosemary West

Described as the most prolific female serial killer, she is certainly one of the most notorious. Alongside her husband, Fred, Rose sexually abused and murdered at least 10 women and girls between 1971 and 1987 many of them children, in 1995 and buried the bodies under their home.

Among the victims were one of her daughters, her step-daughter, and her husband’s pregnant lover. Whilst her husband escaped justice by killing himself in his prison cell ahead of the trial, Rose was made to answer for her crimes.

West’s trial judge recommended that she should never be released but she was initially given a life sentence with a minimum term of 25 years (meaning that she would have been eligible for parole in 2020). However, then Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled in 1997 that she should never be released and her sentence was upgraded to a whole life order. Now aged 69, West is serving her time at HMP New Hall, Wakefield.

Whole life orders were set by government ministers from their introduction until an appeal in 2002. Now they can only be imposed by a judicial body.  

Joanna Dennehy

Dennehy was responsible for the 2013 Peterborough ditch murders, in which she stabbed  three men to death and left their bodies in ditches. She also attacked two other men but they survived.

The men that Dennehy killed were known to her - one was her love, another an acquaintance, and a third was her housemate. The two men who she failed to kill were not known to her and were chosen at random, except for the fact that they were men.

Dennehy had no apparent motivation for her crimes, only saying that she found killing entertaining. An acquaintance, Lloyd, said that she had wanted to kill nine men to be like notorious gangsters Bonnie and Clyde.

She confessed to all three of the murders and was sentenced to a whole life order - she is the first and so far only woman to be given this sentence by a judge. She is now 41 years old and is serving her sentence at Low Newton, an all-female maximum security prison in Durham.

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