Is There Rough Justice For Women Who Kill Their Abusers?

A lack of understanding of the impact of long-term domestic abuse can lead to women receiving overly harsh sentences. Campaigners are calling for first responders, lawyers and judges to handle these cases more sensitively

By Dominique Sisley

17 May 2021

his should, technically, be a monumental moment for women in the UK. After four years of delays and deliberations, the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill – hailed by government representatives as “game-changing” and “once in a generation” – is finally on its way to becoming law.

In a year that has seen a lockdown-fuelled surge in domestic violence, mostly at the hands of men, this is good news. The bill is set to widen our definitions of abuse, introduce new protections to victims of revenge porn, and put an end to the “rough sex defence” in court. It will also strengthen legislation around coercive control: a form of sustained emotional abuse that, for decades, had not been acknowledged or properly understood in our justice system.

Up to now, protections for female domestic abuse sufferers have been scarce. In some more desperate cases, they have been forced to make a deadly choice: they can either become one of the 100 women a year to be killed by their abuser, or they can take violent retaliatory action to save themselves. The British justice system is unforgiving to those who choose the latter: for decades, women who have been driven to kill their abusers have been treated with disdain and dismissal by the courts. Often, they even end up receiving harsher and longer sentences than male perpetrators.

This imbalance was addressed earlier this year in a letter to the government written by Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, and Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, who blamed a “culture of misogyny throughout the criminal justice system”, which means women are often disproportionately penalised.

In the letter, they write: “The lack of understanding of domestic abuse... is also of huge concern in relation to the sentences received by women who kill their partners in self-defence, or after a long period of abuse. Their punishments can appear disproportionate.” They add that the dynamics of domestic abuse is often poorly understood by judges and that a woman’s background of having experienced abuse is not given adequate weight during sentencing and consequently results in longer custodial sentences.

One of the most prominent examples of this – which is cited in the letter – is the case of Sally Challen. In 2011, Sally was put on trial for killing her husband, Richard, with a hammer after finding messages to another woman on his phone. Sally, then 57, was painted in court as a resentful, bitter and unhinged wife, driven by envy to commit an act of unimaginable violence. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison, with the judge declaring that she’d been “eaten up with jealousy”.

But in the years that followed, disturbing details about their marriage began to come out. Sally had been married to Richard for 31 years, since she was 16, and had endured years of emotional and verbal abuse in that time. He had raped her repeatedly, controlled her finances, and alienated her from friends (there was only one she was allowed to see on her own).

He would also make comments about how ugly Sally was, calling her “thunder thighs” and ordering her to hide her body and wash before sex (he believed she smelled, though doctors assured her she didn’t.) Decades of this sustained coercive control had ravaged her mental health, but she had no way to verbalise what was happening.

Sally’s son, David Challen, remembers her behaviour in the lead-up to the incident.

“I could feel her getting away,” he says today. “She was not paying attention anymore when I used to speak to her. Her mind was elsewhere.”

Although he remembers his childhood as happy, he has since begun to recognise the signs that his mother had been secretly suffering.

“Most people only really get a glimpse of domestic abuse, even if they're in the family… it was only when I spoke to friends and family over the years that stories began to come out about what my father was really like.”

Sally’s case is complex, but no anomaly. Between April 2008 and March 2018, 108 men were killed by a woman they had been in a relationship with. According to both Justice For Women (JFW) and the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), many of these incidents – like Sally’s – have been misunderstood by the British justice system. In fact, after examining 92 of these cases, they found that 77% of these women had experienced violence or abuse from the men they had killed.

In February this year, the organisations released a joint report titled “Women Who Kill”, investigating the justice system’s failures in these cases, along with recommendations about what needs to change.

Many of the incidents it raises seem shockingly unjust: for example, one unnamed woman was forced to move house twice to escape an abusive partner and took out numerous non-molestation orders against him. The police took no substantive action, despite being called to 54 separate incidents during their altercations. When she ended up stabbing him after he broke into her house, she was charged with murder, which turned into manslaughter, and she was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Other cases, like Sally’s, are more complicated. If a woman has been a victim of coercive control – characterised by sustained verbal or emotional abuse – it can be difficult to prove, as perpetrators are likely to be highly manipulative.

“My dad was very controlling; he knew what he was doing,” says David, who now works as a campaigner against coercive control and domestic violence. “He removed people in my mum’s life who gave her independent thought and her own liberty to make decisions. She’s a victim that was taken very young and programmed to think that was what a normal relationship was.”

Although this kind of coercive control is technically a criminal offence (as of 2015), it is still not widely understood by either the public or criminal justice system, which can affect the way cases are handled and sentenced.

There is also the toxic myth of the “good victim”. It’s unlikely that the court will view you favourably if you are a woman with a promiscuous past, any previous convictions, or a history of drug or substance abuse. Class and race come into play too, as does your general demeanour – if you’re not responsive or empathetic enough when testifying, you might be seen as callous or viewed suspiciously by the court.

One example of a so-called “bad victim” is 28-year-old Emma Jayne-Magson, a woman who stabbed her partner, 26-year-old James Knight, through the chest during a drunken row. Despite there being CCTV footage of Knight pushing Magson to the ground on the same evening, plus evidence of bruising on her neck from his alleged attempt to strangle her, her plea of self-defence was rejected. She is now serving a 17 year prison sentence for murder, partly due to her unusual behaviour – potentially as a result of trauma – in the days after the incident.

“Magson behaved very oddly and denied everything at first,” recalls Harriet Wistrich, the founder of CWJ, who defended both Magson and Challen. “Obviously, that was not helpful to her defence; it made her seem very cold and unsympathetic. But I also think it’s more complex than that. Women are being convicted of murder because they've lied or behaved oddly. Not because they actually were defending themselves, or were under extreme provocation and lost control.” (Weeks earlier, for comparison, 70-year-old Anthony Williams was sentenced to five years in prison after strangling his wife to death because he found lockdown “hard”).

Magson, Wistrich adds, was also a working class woman with previous convictions for violence and anti-social behaviour.

“She was basically described by the prosecution as a slag from a council estate who had slept with 50 men, as if that was somehow relevant,” Wistrich says. “So, yes, there were stereotypes that came into play.”

The Women Who Kill report diagnoses a number of problems that currently exist in the justice system, and many of them are hard to argue with. It asserts that police are not doing enough when it comes to protecting women against their abusers, often ignoring complaints and injunctions until the situation becomes deadly.

‘77% of women who have murdered their partners had experienced violence or abuse from the men they had killed.’

It calls for more education on trauma and domestic violence – for first responders, judges and lawyers – as well as better understanding around racial and cultural differences. (In the UK, women of colour face an additional layer of prejudice, and can often be perceived as more violent or submissive, depending on their ethnic identity).

Sentencing is also highlighted as a key issue: at the moment, the use of weapons can lead to harsher sentences, but women, who are often smaller than their abusers, are much more likely to use a weapon than their bare hands. The report calls for legislative amendment, allowing survivors acting in self-defence against their abuser to have the same protection as householders defending themselves against an intruder. As it currently stands, the law gives more leeway for the use of force for a person defending their property, than for a woman defending her life.

“Battered women who kill have hardly ever been able to use the self-defence defence,” says Pragna Patel, a founding member of the Southall Black Sisters campaign group. “The majority of women have to rely on medical evidence, on a diminished responsibility plea, to prove the impact of abuse on their mental state. Women have to be medicalised to highlight what is, in effect, a social phenomenon in domestic abuse and coercive control.”

Of course, taking another person’s life, regardless of their gender, is a serious crime, and there are some who are weary of approaching these incidents in a gendered way.

In the report, one anonymous lawyer states that it is unhelpful to categorise offenders or victims by gender: “Males, too, can be affected by issues of violence, and the generalised concept that males are more aggressive than women is unfair and outdated,” they are quoted as saying. But this assertion ignores the fact that women are eight times more likely to be killed by their male partners, and ignores the misogyny – which manifests as stereotyping and overly harsh sentencing – that is already embedded in our justice system.

“I'm not for one minute suggesting women have a licence to kill,” adds Patel. “What I am saying is that we need to think about context. Context is everything. Our criminal justice system focuses always on incidents, never the context, and so that needs to be better understood, that embedded contextual analysis of why people do what they do.”

That culture of misogyny is going nowhere fast, and Wistrich admits that the future can sometimes look “depressing”. Changing the way our legal system – and our culture – views women will take years of education and deconditioning. However, there have been signs of progress.

“I think overall we have to hold on to the fact that there is greater understanding in society around domestic violence and coercive control, and that hopefully will begin to make a change,” she adds.

The case of Sally Challen is also a bastion of hope for campaigners. After serving eight years of her 17 year sentence, she was released in 2019 after a successful retrial. Her original murder conviction was quashed and replaced with manslaughter, allowing her to walk free with time served.

The unexpected success of the appeal was partly due to an increased societal understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control, which is set to be formalised further with this year’s Domestic Abuse Bill.

“She’s great now,” says David. “It’s just amazing to see, because if it wasn't for that appeal, it would have been another 10 years. She hadn’t got to experience a good quality of life, or independence, because she was married at 16. It's nice to see that she has some now.”

Lead image by Chris Willson / Alamy Stock Photo

The Short Stack

Campaigners say that the culture of misogyny in the criminal justice system leads to disproportionate sentences for women who kill their abusers. Judges need a better understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse if this is to change.

By Dominique Sisley

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