“Well, why didn’t she leave him if the violence was so bad?”
Sadly, this attitude is still a common one in the justice system when it comes to understanding abused women. I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve heard: “She gave as good as she got.” Or even: “She was a jealous wife.”
As the new report Women who Kill highlights, very little has shifted in official and public attitudes towards those trapped in violent relationships and how they might react.
I’ve been campaigning for them for decades. It all started with the campaign by Southall Black Sisters to free Kiranjit Ahluwalia, which Justice for Women (JfW) supported. In 1978 Kiranjit entered an arranged marriage in India with Deepak, and then settled with him in London. The couple moved in with Deepak’s family and the cruelty began immediately. After a decade of violence, rape and sexual abuse, she set fire to his feet as he slept. He died ten days later
She was convicted of murder in December 1989. The trial judge said that the violence she had suffered was “not serious” and the prosecution claimed that she had merely been “knocked about”. Years later, Kiranjit told me that she could not bear to talk in court about the many times he had raped her, often in front of their sons, because “the shame would have killed me”.
This was 30 years ago, but as the report published by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) and Justice for Women reveals, 93% of women convicted of murder are still being failed. The subtitle of the report says it all: How the State Criminalises Women Who We Might Otherwise be Burying. It is the first research of its kind in the UK to build a comprehensive picture of the criminal justice system’s response to women who kill their abusers — before they themselves are killed. It shows that there is very little understanding, and scant sympathy for those trapped in a situation which leaves them saying such chilling things as: “I strongly believe that if he hadn’t died, I would have.”
Back in 1990, a year after Kiranjit’s conviction, another woman was given a life sentence for the murder of her violent husband. Sara Thornton had been married to Malcolm for 18 months, during which time his violence and alcohol-fuelled aggression escalated.
Having fruitlessly approached her church, her GP, Alcoholics Anonymous, social services and the police for help, Sara was desperate and scared. In June 1989, 10 days before Malcolm was about to stand trial for an assault on Sara, he told her and her 10-year-old daughter to “get out” or they would be “dead meat”.
Sara took a kitchen knife, stabbed him in the stomach and immediately called an ambulance. Malcolm died hours later, and Sara was arrested, convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
After hearing about the violence Sara endured, the judge said she could have “walked out or gone upstairs”. The following year Sara appealed her conviction on the grounds that Malcolm’s violence and threats to kill had “provoked” her. She failed and was returned to prison.
As it happens, two days later, Joseph McGrail, on trial for the manslaughter of his wife Marion whom he had kicked to death, pleaded provocation as a defence, recounting tales of her “nagging”. Handing down a two-year suspended sentence, the judge expressed “every sympathy” for Joseph McGrail, adding “this lady would have tried the patience of a saint”.
After noting several cases of men using similar defences to Joseph McGrail, I began to use the shorthand “the nagging and shagging clause”. I have been in court when men have claimed provocation on the grounds that he could not “shut her up” or that she had humiliated him by having an affair with his best friend. I have seen male judges nod with understanding and sympathy – sometimes the same judges who dismiss women’s testimony of extreme violence with, “If it was so bad why didn’t you leave?
Today, men are still able to plead diminished responsibility by convincing a psychiatrist that they were “depressed” at the time of the offense. Women, on the other hand, are prosecuted and convicted for murder not manslaughter; available partial defences are not advanced at trial; when manslaughter pleas are offered, these are sometimes not accepted by the CPS; and women are rarely acquitted on the basis of self-defence. The contrast between how violent men are treated in court and how women defending themselves against these men are treated is nothing short of scandalous.
It’s because of this unjust treatment of women by the courts that the indomitable Harriet Wistrich became a lawyer and now ensures that dangerous men, such as John Worboys are locked up and women who kill after years of abuse are given justice. We co-founded JfW together as a response to the Kiranjit and Sara cases and have campaigned hard ever since.
We managed, after three years of protest and lobbying, to get Kiranjit’s murder conviction overturned on the grounds of diminished responsibility because of the severe depression she suffered as a result of the violence. Sara’s second appeal was successful. Following a re-trial in 1995, she was cleared of murder and convicted of manslaughter.
Both these judgments set important precedents, which attempt to accommodate the different ways in which women may respond to provocation. In the years since, recommendations have been enacted in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, including the abolition of the defence of provocation and its replacement with the defence of loss of control, caused by a fear of violence. The offence of coercive and controlling behaviour (2015) has been introduced along with the Domestic Abuse Bill (2020). Sally Challen’s successful appeal in 2019 raised further awareness of the impact of coercive control.
But as our new research highlights, neither the criminal justice system nor juries have a detailed understanding of this. Regardless of these hard-won victories, there are still numerous examples in our report of the CPS pursuing inappropriate murder charges and refusing plea bargains from women. Those myths and stereotypes about female behaviour still abound.
Part of the reason for this is the media. For the report, over 100 substantive media reports of women on trial for the murder of a current or former partner were analysed and found that, in almost all cases, the copy contained sexist tropes and vilification of the woman involved.
Often, the reports were top-heavy with comments from the prosecution or experts that presented her as being worthy of hatred and scorn. At the trial of Sally Challen in 2011, the prosecution case against her was that of a jealous wife, stalking her husband and driven to kill because she feared he would leave her.
Negative portrayals of women who kill are often in sharp contrast to the sympathetic manner in which some men who kill are portrayed. Luke and Ryan Hart’s father Lance murdered their mother Claire and sister Charlotte in 2016 before killing himself. Lance had subjected Claire to horrendous abuse throughout their marriage, in which he controlled her every move. A number of press reports described Lance as a “nice guy” who was “always caring” and “good at DIY”. One report even stated that the murders were “understandable”.
The research team for the report conducted in-depth interviews with 20 women who had killed violent male partners. The team also analysed 92 case files. Additionally, interviews with defence and prosecution lawyers as well as judges provided invaluable insights into the workings of the system regarding cases of abused women who kill.
They concluded that the lack of understanding extends to experts as well — psychiatrists, police and judges are often not trained in issues around violence against women and girls and therefore can fail to understand what leads abused women to kill. Take the case of Farieissia (Fri) Martin, a 22-year-old mother of two toddlers who was convicted of the murder of her violent partner in 2015. During the trial, the history of violence perpetrated by the deceased was not explored and a mental health assessment was not carried out.
In December 2020 Fri’s appeal was successful. Her new legal team sought new psychiatric evidence that would have assisted her at the original trial, and a retrial was ordered for May this year.
One valuable lesson learned from the women is how the fear instilled in them by their abusers prevents them from engaging with the police and other agencies. And because few women have the language to describe the daily abuse they suffer that does not involve black eyes or broken bones, it can escalate to deadly violence before anyone intervenes to help.
Over the past 30 years I have spent time with scores of women who sought advice and advocacy from JfW, and every one of them expressed a profound sense of remorse and deep regret at taking a life. All had suffered serious trauma as a result of the abuse and the homicide, and many could not even remember the fatal act. The women all spoke of the terror that dominated their lives with the abuser. More than one told me that being sent to prison, as distressing it was, meant that for the first time in years they felt safe.
Many found the experience of giving evidence in court highly distressing, and the presence of the family of the deceased was an inhibiting factor. One woman said: “During the trial, I didn’t want to talk about when the relationship was bad. His family were all there and I didn’t want to properly address what he was in front of his family.”
Every single one of the many women I have met who took such drastic action to escape abuse deeply regrets what happened. And yet, the criminal justice system doesn’t seem to hear them. Isn’t it time we tried harder to understand? In the words of one woman who is awaiting trial, “The police never stopped him, and I knew he would kill me one day. I did what I did because I wanted to live for my kids.”