A TRUCKER who savagely beat to death a teenage hitch-hiker and dumped her body near Worcester 20 years ago can ask to be freed next month - although he still insists he is not a sex killer.

Stuart Morgan, now 56, picked up 19-year-old French student, Celine Figard, at a service station on the M4 in Berkshire just before Christmas in 1995.

In a crime which shocked the nation, he had sex with her before repeatedly beating her over the head with a blunt instrument and strangling her.

He hid her remains so he could enjoy Christmas with his family but, 10 days after killing her, he dumped Celine's naked body in a lay-by at Hawford, near Worcester.

Morgan, from Parkestone, Dorset, was convicted of her murder in October 1996 and was ordered to serve a minimum of 20 years behind bars.

London's High Court heard today that that 'tariff' expires in February and Morgan will then be entitled to ask the Parole Board to free him.

That is despite the fact that Morgan 'maintains his innocence to this day', said top judge, Mr Justice William Davis.

At his trial, Morgan insisted that he had consensual sex with Celine before dropping her off 'alive and well' in Southampton.

But the judge said that, until confronted with DNA evidence, Morgan had "denied any knowledge of her" in police interviews.

He insists that, even if he did murder the teenager, the crime was not sexually motivated.

But the judge told him: "The only sensible inference is that the killing of Miss Figard did involve a sexual element.

"To conclude otherwise would be to accept that she may have been prepared to have consensual sexual intercourse with a 36-year-old lorry driver who she had never met before."

The judge said Morgan had "behaved well" in prison, having completed vocational courses and acted as a laundry orderly and 'buddy' to other prisoners.

However, he remains a high security "Category A" prisoner.

Morgan challenged the Justice Department's refusal to move him to a softer regime by down-grading his security rating.

He also said it was unfair that he had been refused an oral hearing before the Parole Board.

He claimed that he was in an "Catch 22" situation in which he could not progress towards release without admitting his guilt.

Rejecting his complaints, however, Mr Justice Davis said there was no evidence that Morgan had "gained insight" into his crime during his years behind bars.

His persistent denial of guilt suggested that he had not "addressed his offending behaviour".

And the judge observed: "Morgan was in effect in the same position as in December 1995, when he murdered his victim".

Morgan can apply for release on parole next month, but will only be freed if the Parole Board is convinced he poses no danger to the public.