Lawyers seek justice for women jailed for killing abusive partners

By Hannah Summers

It was a specific moment in which she thought she might die that drove Stella to the brink. “He had strangled me at the bottom of the stairs and that frightened me because you can get punched in the face or your hand broken, but I had never lost my breath before,” she recalled.

For Nicole, she was “pushed over the edge” when violence by her partner triggered a post-traumatic response to historic abuse by other men. “I was getting flashbacks of abuse ... everything came to a head and I just lost it.”

For others, like Cathy, it was the stark belief they were beyond the protection of the law and could see no other way out. Put bluntly, it was a matter of survival.

The cases of these female prisoners are among those examined in a report that analyses how the justice system treated women who killed their male abusers. It concludes that both the law and the way it is applied in England and Wales means women are being unfairly convicted.

Failures to explore properly the abuse suffered by women who kill mean they could be convicted of murder instead of manslaughter, or the appropriate defences may not be put forward, the study found.

Now, lawyers who believe dozens of women could be serving time in prison for unsafe murder convictions are assessing at least 20 cases where there may be grounds for appeal.

This comes after Farieissia Martin, convicted of killing Kyle Farrell in 2015, had her murder conviction quashed in December following support from Justice for Women, co-authors of the report. She is now facing a re-trial.

Harriet Wistrich, the founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “Our research investigates why, despite an apparent increase in the understanding of domestic abuse, we still see so many miscarriages of justice with women who are themselves victims, serving life imprisonment for choosing to survive.”

New data shows that between April 2008 and March 2018, 108 men were killed by women they had been in a relationship with – either at the time of the killing or some time previously. In comparison, nearly eight times as many women (840) were killed by partners or ex-partners during the same period.

Researchers looked at 92 cases where women had killed men over the same decade and found that in 77% of them the woman had experienced violence or abuse from the deceased. “This is likely to be an underestimate as some women will never disclose abuse,” explained Wistrich, who has represented more than 10 women in their appeals against murder convictions.

She said: “While hundreds of women subjected to violence and coercive control were killed by their partners, most of the small number of women who killed men were driven to do so after suffering abuse. Many were imprisoned for long periods at great cost to them and their families.”

Of the 92 cases, 43% of the women were convicted of murder and 46% of manslaughter – just six were acquitted. Of those convicted of murder, 33% were sentenced to 20 years or more in prison and 35% to 15 years or more.

In 71% of cases the defendants had stabbed the deceased. Women are more likely to use a weapon than men who kill their female partners – because they tend to be physically smaller – but use of a weapon results in longer prison sentences.

Researchers interviewed 20 women between the ages of 23 and 65 from a variety of backgrounds who were convicted for killing abusive men.

They also spoke to 14 lawyers who had represented or prosecuted women in these cases and examined 23 domestic homicide reviews and 17 case files involving women defendants who had applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Women who kill their partner or ex-partner often do so as a last resort, researchers found. They noted a failure to address men’s violence throughout the justice system, from policing and legal representation to the courts and prison service.

The women in 19 of the 23 domestic homicide review cases had experienced historic abuse from a man other than the one they killed.

Nicole said her ex-husband had abused her children and revealed she had also been abused as a child. “He admitted it and got a caution...It had a really big impact on me because I never wanted what happened to me as a child happening to my sonsand it did. Justice wasn’t done.”

In Cathy’s case, non-molestation orders had been issued against her ex-partner and she had moved house to evade him. Police had been called to 54 separate incidents involving the couple but on six occasions charges were dropped against her ex.

On the night she fatally stabbed him, he had broken into her home and told her to remove her clothes. She later disclosed she thought he was going to rape her. After initially being charged with murder, she was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility – one of the partial defences.

But legal experts say too often a lack of expertise or mistakes made early in a woman’s case mean the proper defences are not advanced.

After Stella was arrested for killing her partner, police recorded that she was “shell shocked”. She said: “They told me he was gone. I couldn’t take it in and said, ‘I have got to be with him.’ I couldn’t imagine living with that… I was very suicidal [but] they thought I was fit for interview straight away.”

Dr Catherine Durkin, a forensic psychiatrist for the NHS, says women who have suffered long-term abuse will often be in a state of severe shock when they enter the criminal justice system.

“The stress of retelling the circumstances of their arrest in prolonged interviews and at trial can be so triggering of their underlying trauma that they experience dissociative or amnesic states.

“This can impair their ability to recall information about the offence, but also to disclose the often highly distressing circumstances of past abuse,” explained Durkin, who carries out assessments on female prisoners.

Women may struggle to engage with police and solicitors in the immediate aftermath of the killing but the details they share at that point can have important consequences for their trial. Defence lawyers interviewed said even when abuse was disclosed early there were cases where they believed a murder prosecution had been pursued inappropriately.

One explained: “I have acted in several cases where there is significant evidence of history of abuse on the defendant which impacted her mental health and supported a partial defence to murder, where the CPS [Crown Prosecution Servce] could have charged with manslaughter and/or accepted a plea but have chosen to fight it.”

Pleading guilty to manslaughter can avoid a murder conviction but entering a plea in this way can deny a woman access to the full defence of self-defence and the chance of being acquitted.

Stacey Hyde, a troubled teenager who had suffered neglect and abuse as a child, was wrongly convicted of murdering Vincent Francis in 2010. She stabbed him after he attacked her friend, who the prosecution acknowledged had been subjected to violence by Francis on 27 previous occasions.

Hyde appealed on the basis of fresh psychiatric evidence and offered a plea of manslaughter, which the evidence supported, according to her lawyers. “However the CPS was determined to pursue murder at retrial and opposed bail,” explained Wistrich. The jury later acquitted Hyde on the grounds of self-defence and she walked free having served six years imprisonment from age 17.

Wistrich added: “In my experience the Crown will pursue murder convictions even following a successful appeal and regardless of compelling evidence of mitigation.”

Just six women out of 92 were acquitted on the basis of self-defence while 14 had tried to run self-defence as part of their trial for murder and were convicted. The defence is “risky” according to some lawyers, and campaigners are calling for an amendment to this law to be added to the Domestic Abuse bill currently going through the House of Lords.

But legislative reforms are limited without specialist understanding of domestic abuse across the justice system.The report, Women Who Kill: how the state criminalises women we might otherwise be burying, recommends mandatory training for police, lawyers and judges, especially around coercive control.

Sally Challen was the first woman to have her murder conviction quashed in the wake of new coercive control laws which came into force in England and Wales in 2015. She killed her husband Richard in 2010 after four decades of being controlled and bullied by him. She was jailed for life with a minimum term of 22 years, later reduced to 18.

But in a groundbreaking appeal judges heard new psychiatric evidence framing her case in the context of her husband’s controlling behaviour. Sally, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, walked free after nine years due to time already served. She said: “Many women who are in prison today serving life sentences for murder have not had the domestic abuse they experienced properly explored during trial.”

Louisa Rolfe, assistant commissioner of the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for domestic abuse, said officers receive training on coercive control, adding: “We have a responsibility to investigate every violent death, and consider all the evidence, including previous history, before we seek a decision from the CPS on whether a person should be charged and with what offence.

“Our understanding of the devastating impact of living within an abusive relationship is developing all the time and we always seek to learn from any previous incidents, and we always seek to learn from any previous incidents” she said.

A CPS spokesperson said: “We recognise the devastating impact of domestic abuse on victims, and prosecutors take all relevant factors into account when deciding the appropriate charge. Medical evidence, including on mental health, forms a key part of our considerations in these kinds of cases.

“Every prosecution is kept under continuous review and, where there is consensus that a partial defence is available, we are unlikely to proceed with murder charges. However, experts will often disagree on this point and these matters may then be set before a jury to decide.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities