For a woman accused of such grave crimes, Lucy Letby cut an almost pitiable figure in the witness box at Manchester crown court.
Clutching a fluffy purple comforter out of sight of the jury, the nurse dissolved into tears at reminders of her home life. The 33-year-old wept at any mention of her cats, Tigger and Smudge, and sobbed when the court saw a photograph of her childlike bedroom, with four fluffy toys laid across her “sweet dreams” duvet, fairy lights on her bedframe, and art saying “leave sparkles wherever you go” pinned to the wall.
Her tears at these points were in sharp contrast to her expressionless, impassive demeanour when the details of her alleged crimes were presented to the jury. After the guilty verdicts, Letby ranks as one of the most persistent child killers in modern British history and one of the most notorious female murderers of the last century.
The description by the prosecutor, Nicholas Johnson KC, of Letby as a “cold, calculated, cruel and relentless” killer was almost word for word the phrase used by the judge who sentenced Myra Hindley for the Moors murders more than 50 years ago. It was said of Hindley, and Rose West, that what made their crimes all the more shocking was that these women were so “ordinary”. Letby was the epitome of ordinary. She appeared conventional in every way.
DCI Nicola Evans, who spent six years analysing Letby as part of the police investigation, described her in one word: “Beige.”
“There isn’t anything outstanding or outrageous that we found out about her as a person,” Evans said. “She was an average nurse. She was what you would say is a normal twentysomething-year-old … but clearly there was another side of that that nobody saw and that we have unravelled during this investigation.”
Letby lived alone in a semi-detached home in the cathedral city of Chester in north-west England, on a quiet street of neat lawns and privet hedges. Her neighbours were either retired or couples with children. They would rarely see the young, blond woman who had moved into the house in March 2016 – she worked nights at first, then soon moved to day shifts, when she would leave with her Morrisons bag for life before dawn and rarely return until late.
Her parents, who lived a couple of hours south, in Hereford, had helped Letby buy the smart £179,000 three-bedroom house. It was a mile from the Countess of Chester hospital, where she worked, and the poky staff digs where she had lived until then.
Letby decorated her home with chintzy wall art – “happy prosecco season” and “friends are angels in disguise” – and cuddly toys. In the kitchen, she had a “happy birthday mummy” note pinned to the wall from her cats, written by her mother. Another note read: “No 1 godmother awarded to Lucy Letby.”
She was a fastidious diary-keeper, writing down work shifts in blue ink and social engagements in pink, ticking off items she had “completed”, including the delivery of a washing machine.
Letby went to the gym, did salsa classes most weeks and had “quite an active” social life, she told jurors, but her life appeared to revolve around her work. She often volunteered for overtime and regularly worked weekends. She was quietly popular among some of her fellow nurses, two of whom she counted as best friends. It was her own “little family”, she said.
No complaints had previously been raised about Letby to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. She was once chosen as the face of a fundraising campaign by the Countess of Chester hospital, and appeared on a poster. She featured in the Chester Standard several times as part of the newspaper’s support for the Babygrow appeal, aimed at raising £3m to build a new neonatal unit at the hospital.
In 2012, she appeared in a photo holding a baby as part of a story on a person who had donated money to the appeal. And in 2013, she was the subject of a short interview about her job, in which she told the newspaper: “I hope the new unit will provide a greater degree of privacy and space for parents and siblings.”
To others she was unremarkable. “She didn’t stand out as a particularly bad nurse, she didn’t stand out as a particularly good nurse, excelling in anything,” said one senior colleague.
Eirian Powell, the hospital’s neonatal unit manager, was one of the first members of staff to notice that Letby was on duty when babies began deteriorating suddenly in June 2015. Powell was fond of Letby and, unlike some colleagues, judged her an “exceptional” nurse who was “extraordinarily” hard-working, flexible and committed. “She was very particular with her attention to detail,” she said.
Unlike with Hindley and West and some other serial killers, there was never a suggestion that Letby had suffered a brutal childhood. It was the opposite: her upbringing seemed positively idyllic.
She grew up in a pleasant middle-class neighbourhood in Hereford. She went to the comprehensive Aylestone school up to the age of 16, followed by Hereford sixth-form college, which includes pop star Ellie Goulding among its alumni.
Her parents, John and Susan Letby, clearly doted on her. She was their only child, and the first in the family to go to university. Letby returned to her childhood home after she was arrested. They had hated that their only daughter stayed in Chester, 100 miles away from them, after university and worried that she lived alone. A neighbour in Hereford said the local community had offered support to her parents where they could. Neighbours were surprised and just felt very sad for the Letbys, including Lucy, he added.
Detectives admit they may never know what turned this “beige” young nurse into a baby killer. “This is completely unprecedented in that there doesn’t seem to be anything to say … that [explains] why she has committed these crimes,” said Evans.
“Being average has allowed her to go under the radar and it’s allowed her to operate in plain sight. It’s allowed her to abuse people’s trust because nobody is looking at her because she is normal and average and she doesn’t stand out in that crowd. She used that to abuse the trust of so many people around her.”
Letby’s mother and father attended every day of her 10-month trial, decamping from home to stay near Manchester, where the trial was held. She tried to make eye contact with them in the public gallery, occasionally exchanging smiles. Her parents, who still work for the family’s radiator business, occasionally reproached journalists in court for what they felt was unfair coverage.
Letby seemed particularly close to her father. Documents seen by the Guardian show he forcefully defended her when executives at the Countess of Chester hospital removed her from the neonatal unit in July 2016, after the death of two triplet boys.
John Letby was convinced of his daughter’s innocence and received the backing of Tony Chambers, the hospital’s chief executive, who decided that Letby should be allowed to return to the unit in January 2017. When paediatric consultants angrily complained about his decision, Letby’s father threatened to refer them to the General Medical Council. They were forced to write her a letter of apology but maintained that she should not be allowed to return to the unit.
She was arrested little more than a year later, on 4 July 2018 – and her father was there to witness it. It was 6am on a clear blue July morning when Letby opened the door to a Cheshire police detective. Her instinctive smile dropped when the officer introduced himself. Letby was led out of her Chester home in handcuffs 11 minutes later, looking ashen-faced, dressed in her nightie and a blue Lee Cooper tracksuit. She told a female officer she had just had knee surgery as she was placed in the back of an unmarked police car. Her family had returned from a holiday in Torquay the day before and John Letby had stayed the night. In court, she sniffed away tears as she said her father had made her bed after the arrest.
Lucy Letby had been reading two books when Cheshire constabulary’s investigation caught up with her. One was Never Greener by Ruth Jones, a novel about two people “swept up in an adulterous affair”. The other, In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish, was a memoir by a doctor who suffered a haemorrhage when seven months pregnant, losing her first unborn child and having to spend months in the hospital where she worked.
The next time Letby would see her bedroom was five years later in police photographs shown in court.
Letby had decided fairly early that she wanted to work with children, and after college studied nursing at the University of Chester. She was known to be studious with a close circle of friends whom she continued to see before her arrest.
She qualified as a band-five nurse in September 2011, when she was 21, meaning she was able to care for babies in intensive care. When she started working at the Countess of Chester hospital the following year, she was often placed with the most vulnerable babies in nursery one, the intensive care room.
Letby had been in custody for almost two years when her trial began in October 2022. The case was thrown into doubt on the first day when it emerged that she had moved prisons days before, leaving many of her possessions and medication behind, and had found it “highly damaging and traumatising”.
Her barrister, Benjamin Myers KC, said Letby was so shaken by the experience she was disoriented as a result – “incoherent, she can’t speak properly” – and it had “blown away” any progress she had been making psychologically.
The trial eventually got under way a week behind schedule after Letby was assessed by psychiatrists. In her first days in the witness box, she looked on edge. Her eyes darted nervously towards any unexpected noise – a cough, a dropped pen, or when the female prison guard beside her shuffled in her seat. She blinked rapidly.
The defendant, holding her comforter, told jurors she was “easily startled and easily scared” as a result of her “traumatising” arrests, for which she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She also took medication for depression and anxiety.
Under 11 days of cross-examination, her attention to detail became apparent. She occasionally pointed out ambiguities in medical evidence which she would read most nights in her cell. She responded haughtily to Johnson’s questioning, swatting down his remarks while staring straight ahead at the jury, never looking her interlocutor in the eye.
Letby perhaps looked most uncomfortable when she was being asked about a senior doctor with whom the prosecutor suggested she was having an affair. She collapsed in tears halfway through the trial when the married doctor, who cannot be named, came into court to give evidence for the prosecution. Letby told jurors he had been her “best friend” although she had not worked with him for long.
His name was written on scrawled notes recovered from Letby’s bedroom, alongside lyrics to a Craig David song that read: “Love was all we needed / But time let us down.” The pair regularly exchanged Facebook messages, went for meals and walks, and he visited her home.
After Letby was removed from the neonatal unit amid suspicions about her connection to unexplained deaths, she and the doctor went on a day trip to London and continued to meet regularly, exchanging text messages with love hearts. He did not know it, but she had searched for his wife on Facebook.
The nature of their relationship was said to be significant: he was one of the doctors who would be called when babies suddenly deteriorated. She harmed them, it was suggested during the trial, to get his “personal attention”.
Under cross-examination, Letby appeared to say she had a boyfriend but this came during a period of intense questioning about the married doctor with whom she denied having an affair. It was not suggested that she was in a relationship with anyone else at this time, and no previous partners were mentioned during the trial.
Asked why their contact had dried up in early 2017, Letby told her barrister it had simply “fizzled out”.
The weakness of Letby’s defence was exposed when she failed to produce any medical expert, colleague, family member or friend to testify on her behalf. The only witness called by her legal team was a hospital plumber, who looked as bewildered by his presence in court as those watching on.
Lorenzo Mansutti, who had worked at the Countess of Chester since before Letby was born, was in the witness box for 25 minutes before the defendant’s barrister said, at 11.36am on day 129 of the trial: “That’s the case for Miss Letby.” In the dock, Letby looked on impassively.