May 26, 2021

In Liverpool Crown Court, a mixed-race woman is standing in the dock, small and slight, looking even younger than her 28 years. Farieissia ‘Fri’ Martin peers through the glass that separates her from the rest of the courtroom, trying to catch the eye of those friends and family members who are in court to support her.

Her mother, Lyly Maughan, is sitting next to her best friend, Heather Savage, who is the foster mother to her daughters. The girls were aged one and two when Fri killed their father with a single stab wound. Fri’s three brothers and other family members are sitting together looking nervous in the public gallery. Their hope is that Fri will walk free today and be reunited with her children. She has not seen them since March 2020, when Covid prevented prison visits.

Fri was convicted of murder six and a half years ago and jailed for life. But she is back in court because that ruling was quashed after new evidence came to light, and a retrial ordered. Her lawyers are convinced that Fri has served her time and doesn’t pose a danger to anyone.

Her case is the perfect illustration of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system when it comes to domestic violence: a misunderstanding of coercive relationships, a misreading of abuse, victim blaming, excusing the perpetrator. And as recent research shows, failures by criminal justice agencies to provide protection to women almost always precedes domestic homicide, with women overwhelmingly the victims. So, this case comes back to trial at the perfect time to assess whether the domestic abuse bill has made a blind bit of difference to what happens in the courts and in women’s homes.

In a separate part of the public gallery sit the cousins and family members of the deceased, throwing hostile glances at Fri and her family. The police are also there, in case of any trouble between the two families from Toxteth.

Fri killed her partner, Kyle Farrell, during a violent row in which he had attempted to strangle her. She had been out visiting a friend and when she got back Kyle complained that she was later than he expected. A neighbour heard Fri screaming for help and, when they entered the house, saw “a lot of blood” and Kyle on the floor. In a panic, Fri told the neighbour a stranger must have come in and attacked him

The young couple, both 21 at the time, had known each other since school and had been in a relationship for five years. This fateful night was the climax of those five years of abuse. Kyle raped and attacked Fri on numerous occasions during their years together. Lyly often heard arguments between the couple, including one that ended with Kyle shouting that Fri should “go and get raped”.

Fri’s two daughters were born just ten months apart, the first when she was 19, the second 20. She had terminated several other pregnancies, telling Heather that they were a result of force and “not made of love”.  I knew something was going on,” says Lyly. “One time, she came over and her face was a terrible state, it was covered in bruises, but she gave excuse after excuse, saying one of the kids threw a bottle at her.”

However, she didn’t tell anyone in authority about the violence, in keeping with a largely unwritten code in the black community of Liverpool that you don’t “grass”.

She maintained that pretence when the police arrested her, assuming that Kyle would survive, and her children be removed if she made allegations of domestic abuse — something she had seen happen to many young women in her working-class community. It was only when she was told that Kyle had died, and the police said they believed she was a victim of domestic violence, that Fri eventually provided an accurate account of events.

Despite that evidence, in May 2015, a jury in that same Liverpool court, and before that same judge, convicted Fri of Kyle’s murder. Her family was deeply unhappy. They felt the legal representation had failed to show the impact of the abuse Fri had suffered. So shortly after the conviction, Fri’s uncle contacted Justice for Women, which arranged a new legal team to explore grounds of appeal. Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor who had represented Sally Challen, took up the case. She was shocked to see that Fri’s previous legal team had failed to obtain any evidence exploring the impact of the history of domestic abuse on her mental health.

It takes a long time for victims of abuse to feel safe enough to talk about it to a psychiatrist. In particular, Fri was terrified of disclosing that she had been raped when she was 15 by a family friend. It was only after spending many months working with a counsellor specialising in domestic violence that Fri was able to open up.

The resulting psychiatric and psychological report set out the extent and nature of the sexual, physical and psychological abuse that Fri had suffered, concluding that Fri was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which made her hypervigilant in the face of further violence and may have caused her to lose control when threated with violence. The experts also noted that PTSD can cause “dissociation”, which may have explained why Fri could not remember stabbing Kyle, only the blood and panic afterwards.

Fri’s new lawyers also instructed a pathologist to closely examine mug-shot photographs of Fri taken by police shortly after her arrest for murder. The pathologist concluded that the visible bruise marks to her neck were probably caused by strangulation, consistent with Fri’s account of having been throttled prior to her grabbing a knife and stabbing Kyle. Had this evidence been disclosed by the police at the time of her original trial, Fri may not have ever been convicted of murder.

Fri’s lawyers were convinced they had a solid case to appeal. But an application for permission to appeal was dismissed in February 2018. The application was then renewed before three judges, who noted that this was a “paradigm case of coercive control” and ordered the appeal to go ahead. The Crown Prosecution Service commissioned its own psychiatric and psychological evidence which agreed with the diagnosis of PTSD. However, the Crown opposed the appeal. The case eventually went to a full Court of Appeal hearing in December 2020, at which point the court quashed her murder conviction and ordered a retrial.

Fri’s lawyers wrote immediately to the CPS, indicating that Fri was willing to plead guilty to manslaughter, a lesser offence than murder. This was despite evidence supporting self-defence which, if successful at trial, would lead to a full acquittal. But the CPS rejected repeated requests to drop the murder charge. Eventually, the case was prepared for a retrial on murder to begin on 17 May.

On 18 May, the CPS agreed to accept a change of plea from guilty to manslaughter without intent. Fri readily agreed, fearing a hostile jury could reconvict her of murder despite the additional evidence. The case was adjourned for sentencing until 21 May.

I was there last week in Liverpool Crown Court last week to witness Mr Justice Dove sentence Fri for manslaughter, following a six-year battle for justice. There was, also, a separate offence to consider. Last year, when prisoners had been confined to their cells for 23-and-a-half hours a day during lockdown, Fri illicitly obtained a mobile phone to keep in touch with her children. She also removed a blade from her Bic razor, which she used to make picture frames for her girls.

When sentencing, the judge told Fri to stand and addressed her sternly, more so than in other cases I have observed where the female defendant has been cleared of murder. Looking over at the row of family members of the deceased I wondered if the judge’s harsh tone was for their benefit.

He gave her 10 years for manslaughter, with an additional nine months for the possession of the illicit items and ordered the security staff standing either side of Fri to ‘take her down’. Instead of walking free, Fri had to go back inside for another six months. The maths is insanely complicated. But the point is, he could — he should, in Wistrich’s opinion­ —have chosen to let her go back to her family then.

The legal team was distraught, and everyone visibly upset that Fri was to have to go back to prison. Lyly was shocked that daughter had been “painted as the monster some of the media wrongly made her out to be. The judge didn’t say she had been strangled or mention that’s why she picked up the knife,” says Lyly, “so it sounded like she did it out of badness.”

Fri’s best friend was devastated. “He didn’t mention the strangling when he sentenced her.  The judge praised Kyle as a brilliant father, but he kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. Why not let her come home to her kids?”

Fri, though, was grateful: “I’m no longer a murderer. It’s now accepted that I never intended to kill Kyle and that means the world to me.”

Wistrich was appalled by the harshness of the sentence. A just result, she says, would have been a sentence of six to eight years which would have better reflected the nature of the crime and would have meant immediate release from custody. Ten years is excessively punitive. Especially when you compare that with the lenient five-year sentence given to Anthony Williams who fatally strangled his wife in 2020 claiming depression. Fri was found guilty of an even lesser type of manslaughter. Sure, we’ve got a new Domestic Abuse bill, but “this result makes me feel like we have gone backwards for women victims”, says Wistrich.

While Fri sits alone in her prison cell for twenty-three and a half hours a day, having not seen or held her children for over a year, her legal team, her friends, and her family console themselves with the fact that she is not dead, and that she was able to defend herself against the violence inflicted upon her unlike so many others.

But no one should die — not women nor men — because of domestic abuse. It should be stopped before it gets anywhere near that stage, or, better still, stopped from ever happening in the first place. As Jane Monckton Smith outlines in her brilliant book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, domestic violence can be stopped in the early stages if police and prosecutors do their jobs effectively.

Every three days, a woman dies at the hands of her violent former or current partner. Those deaths are preventable. And had Fri been properly protected, Kyle Farrell would be alive today.