Killer John Barrett still too dangerous to be released, parole board confirms


Psychiatric patient who knifed cyclist to death 24 hours after walking out of hospital unit is still too dangerous to be freed 17 years on

  • John Barrett attacked 50-year-old cyclist Denis Finnegan in Richmond Park
  • Barrett walked out of a psychiatric hospital the day before the attack in 2004
  • Instead of returning to hospital, Barrett went to a shop and bought some knives
  • The parole board today said Barrett was too dangerous to release from prison 

A psychiatric patient who ambushed and stabbed a cyclist less than 24 hours after walking out of a hospital unit is still too dangerous to be freed.

John Barrett repeatedly stabbed 50-year-old Denis Finnegan with a kitchen knife after attacking him as he cycled through Richmond Park in south west London.

The paranoid schizophrenic had been given ‘ground leave’ from Springfield Hospital in Tooting, south London, on 1st September 2004 despite a long history of mental illness and violence.

John Barrett repeatedly stabbed 50-year-old Denis Finnegan with a kitchen knife after attacking him as he cycled through Richmond Park in south west London in September 2004

John Barrett repeatedly stabbed 50-year-old Denis Finnegan with a kitchen knife after attacking him as he cycled through Richmond Park in south west London in September 2004

Barrett targeted Denis Finnegan because a voice in his head said should stab someone

Barrett targeted Denis Finnegan because a voice in his head said should stab someone

Barrett was supposed to return in an hour, but instead he discharged himself and went to buy a set of kitchen knives because voices in his head had ‘told him to kill someone’.

The following morning he went to Richmond Park where, through a ‘chilling process of elimination’, he selected a victim.

Barrett, now 58, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was jailed for life in March 2005. He was sentenced to a minimum term of 15-and-a-half years.

The Parole Board announced today that he had been denied his first bid to be paroled.

His hearing was heard last week – though Barrett decided not to speak to the panel. He used documentation to support his bid.

A spokesperson for the Parole Board said: ‘We can confirm that a panel of the Parole Board refused the release of Mr Barrett following an oral hearing. The panel also refused to recommend a move to open prison.

‘Parole Board decisions are solely focused on what risk a prisoner could represent to the public if released and whether that risk is manageable in the community.

‘A panel will carefully examine a huge range of evidence, including details of the original crime, and any evidence of behaviour change, as well as explore the harm done and impact the crime has had on the victims.

The Parole board today said Barrett, pictured, presented too great a risk to members of the public to release him from prison. They also denied his request to be moved into an open prison

The Parole board today said Barrett, pictured, presented too great a risk to members of the public to release him from prison. They also denied his request to be moved into an open prison 

‘Members read and digest hundreds of pages of evidence and reports in the lead up to an oral hearing. Evidence from witnesses such as probation officers, psychiatrists and psychologists, officials supervising the offender in prison as well as victim personal statements may be given at the hearing.

‘It is standard for the prisoner and witnesses to be questioned at length during the hearing which often lasts a full day or more. Parole reviews are undertaken thoroughly and with extreme care. Protecting the public is our number one priority.

‘Parole reviews are undertaken thoroughly and with extreme care. Protecting the public is our number one priority.

‘Under current legislation he will be eligible for a further review in due course. The date of the next review will be set by the Ministry of Justice.’

A summary of the panel’s decision revealed that Barrett had been judged ‘safe to be discharged’ by a Mental Health Tribunal in October 2022.

The Parole Board hearing was told Barrett had suffered a ‘slight setback’ during a temporary release in February. No details were given.

The summary concluded: After considering the circumstances of his offending, the progress made in hospital settings and the other evidence presented at the hearing, the panel was not satisfied that Mr Barrett was suitable for release to the community.

‘While it was recognised that Mr Barrett’s condition was currently stable and that risks were not be considered imminent if returned to the community, the panel considered that Mr Barrett was appropriately located in the hospital setting where outstanding levels of risk could continue to be addressed.

‘He will be eligible for another parole review in due course.’

Barrett, then aged 41, from Putney, south west London, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

He was sent to Broadmoor Hospital, in Crowthorne, Berkshire, to receive treatment. He has been locked up for 17-years.

Judge Scott-Gall told Barrett in 2005: ‘This was a planned and unprovoked attack on a completely innocent member of the public, a family man who was a complete stranger to you chosen at random.

‘You had forearmed yourself with a knife with a 12in blade which you had purchased the day before.

‘Having taken a taxi to Richmond Park you started searching for somebody to kill.

‘Tragically Mr Finnegan was cycling by and he was selected by you as a target, having met the criteria you had set yourself.

‘You ambushed him and viciously stabbed him a number of times in the back and chest and then calmly walked off.’

The court had earlier heard an account of Mr Finnegan’s dying words at the time he was attacked by Barrett near the park’s Sheen Gate.

Prosecuting, Crispin Aylett said at the time: ‘He (Barrett) lunged at him and stabbed him in the back and stabbed him twice more.

‘Mr Finnegan, a former banker, asked him: ‘What have I done?’ Then the defendant walked away and he wondered to himself whether he had killed him or not.’

Mr Finnegan’s brother John said outside court: ‘It is the best result.

‘It’s disturbing to hear that three or four psychiatrists condemned his care. We knew there were gaps but not the enormity of it.

‘I am appalled that there were people crying out to get help on his behalf and nothing was done.

‘The assessment of people and the care given to them at the beginning should continue throughout their care.

‘They should not be let loose and ignored.’

The court was told that three psychiatrists had all diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations.

Defending, Merida Harford-Bell said that if it had not been for ‘failings’ in his care by the mental health services, Barrett might never have been free to kill.

‘If his care had been better it is our submission that he would not have been out on the streets or in Richmond Park and he would not have been in a position to kill Mr Finnegan,’ she said.

Between September 2002 and October 2003, Barrett had been detained in the Shaftesbury Clinic, a secure unit at Springfield Hospital in Tooting, after being convicted of a vicious knife attack on two patients and a nurse at nearby St George’s Hospital.

He was conditionally discharged by a Mental Health Review Tribunal, but Ms Harford-Bell said there were a series of failings in his care after his release.

‘There were huge gaps in time between him seeing, in particular, his consultant or anyone medically qualified,’ she said.

She told the court that between November 2003 and August last year there were periods of 10 weeks, 13 weeks and 11 weeks when he was not assessed by a consultant despite a requirement for him to see a psychiatrist at least once a month.

During this time, Barrett’s mental health deteriorated to the point where his partner Jane Whittaker became seriously worried about him.

He had launched an unprovoked verbal attack on a stranger in Putney and had also tested positive for cannabis, despite a condition that he should not touch the drug because it ‘triggered psychotic episodes’ in him.

On September 1 2004, Barrett returned to Springfield as a voluntary patient. He wanted to be admitted to an open ward, but there were no beds free so he was admitted again into the hospital’s secure unit.

Ms Harford-Bell told the court Barrett was then given an hour’s ground leave despite not even having been assessed by a consultant.

‘He was not seen by the consultant when he was given ground leave,’ she said. ‘The consultant told the nurse over the telephone that he should be given ground leave without having herself assessed him.’

The circumstances surrounding Barrett’s case were the subject of an investigation by South West London and St George’s Hospital Mental Health NHS Trust, which runs Springfield.

The 400-page report revealed how a catalogue of systematic errors led to the tragic death of Mr Finnegan.

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