September 14, 2021

“Sophie Moss was warm, bubbly and liked by everyone,” says Daniel Parkington, Moss’s former partner and father of their two children. “When I first started seeing her, all my family couldn’t believe how nice a girl I’d brought to meet them.”

Sophie loved going to the gym — “boot camp” classes were her favourite — and working with horses. But most of all, she loved her two sons, who were just five and six-years-old when she was killed by Sam Pybus, her occasional sexual partner, in February this year.

Last week, Pybus was sentenced to just four years and eight months in prison after admitting manslaughter. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was ultimately convinced by his claim that Sophie had enjoyed rough sex and regularly asked him to choke her, and chose not to test the evidence in front of a jury at a murder trial.

At Teesside Crown Court, Judge Paul Watson QC accepted that Sophie was extremely physically and emotionally vulnerable. According to Parkington, she developed postnatal depression and sank into mental illness and alcohol abuse. By 2018, the couple had split; the boys continued living with their father, while Sophie moved to her own flat a short distance away. Parkington remained one of her few sources of support and would regularly visit, taking her food and checking on her.

Sophie, who was 33 when she was killed, lived in my hometown of Darlington. Over the past week, I have spoken to several people who knew her — many of whom admitted that she was frequently sexually exploited by men for alcohol.

There is no suggestion that one of them was Pybus, who was married but had been having occasional sex with Sophie over a three-year period. What we do know, though, is that one night in February, he waited until his wife was asleep and then made his way to Sophie’s house, having drunk 24 bottles of lager over the previous ten hours.

Pybus told police that when he woke to find Sophie unconscious, he left the flat and sat in his car for fifteen minutes while “deciding what to do”. He did not attempt to resuscitate her or call an ambulance. The hospital was a short distance away — nearer to the flat than the police station that Pybus eventually drove to in order to hand himself in. The CPS stated that evidence was then gathered from a former boyfriend of Sophie who confirmed that she enjoyed being choked during sex. This witness has not been named, and the evidence was not tested in court.

But that was just one in a series of disturbing developments in this tragic case. Last year, following a campaign from the feminist group We Can’t Consent To This, the 2020 Domestic Abuse Bill outlined how the “rough sex gone wrong” defence would no longer be permissible as a mitigation to murder. After all, the “50 Shades of Grey” defence, as it is known, quite literally blames the victim for her own death. It is also unclear how a court can determine whether violence during sex is actually consensual.

So how did Pybus evade a trial on the basis that Sophie Moss consented to being choked?

In court, Pybus said the sex was “consensual”, but admitted he had little recollection of how Sophie died. Pybus eventually conceded he must have strangled her during sex because his hands were hurting.

Why his account of events was not put before a jury is perplexing. Since setting up Justice for Women (JfW) in 1990 to advocate on behalf of women who killed violent men, I cannot recall a single case in which the CPS decided to accept a plea of manslaughter and bypass a murder trial, despite there being overwhelming evidence of abuse perpetrated by the deceased towards the defendant.

The case of Emma-Jayne Magson is just one example of the legal double standards when it comes to such cases. In 2016, Magson stabbed her partner James Knight after he attacked her and attempted to strangle her. There was a known history of domestic violence perpetrated by Knight towards Magson; on the night he died, Knight was captured on CCTV pushing Magson into the road.

She had also grown up witnessing horrific domestic violence which led to mental health problems in later life. But during the murder trial, there was no mention of any of this. Despite an appeal, Magson was sentenced to life with a minimum term of seventeen years.

Then there is the case of Farieissia Martin, who was 22 when she was sentenced to a minimum of 13 years in prison for the murder of Kyle Farrell in 2015. Martin, who had two small children with Farrell, had grabbed a knife when he tried to strangle her. Farrell’s history of violence had left Martin in fear for her life, but she was too frightened to call the police in case social services intervened and took away her children. During the trial, Farrell’s violent behaviour was inadequately explored — and Martin was convicted.

All of which raises an uncomfortable question: Why do men who kill women have it easier than women who kill men? Why is misogyny allowed to rule the criminal justice system?

In April this year, strangulation was made a specific offence in recognition of the potential for serious injuries and death. But despite this — and the abolition of the “rough sex” defence — the CPS gave Pybus the benefit of the doubt and accepted his plea to manslaughter.

“What this man did is abhorrent,” says Fiona McKenzie of We Can’t Consent To This. “There is no justice in the court’s apparent acceptance that it was violence Sophie consented to, so not really serious violence at all.” She thinks it is “absolutely right” that the Attorney General is considering whether the conviction should be referred to the appeal court as an unduly lenient sentence. “Pybus’s defence recasts sustained violence on a vulnerable woman as violence that she had asked for, that she knew the risks of and as a fatal situation she really had herself to blame for,” McKenzie tells me.

As someone who has spent years campaigning against male violence, I am shocked but not surprised at the sympathy given to some men by the judicial system while women who should be treated leniently have the book thrown at them. The horrendous irony is that had Pybus knocked Moss over when he drove to her home, he could have been given a longer sentence: the average jail time for careless driving is 4 years, 8.5 months. (And no doubt the sentence would have been longer: Pybus drove to the police station while still drunk.)

It took Parkington several weeks after Moss died to tell their sons they would never see her again. “I sat them down and told him that mummy was poorly and in hospital but that the doctors couldn’t do anything more to help her,” he tells me, distraught. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

In the meantime, Pybus could serve as little as half of his sentence — just two years and 4 months if he keeps his nose clean in prison, meaning he would be out before his 35th birthday.

What message does this send to abusive men? One that is loud and clear: that compared to men, some women’s lives are worth very little indeed.