Mass murder is the defining horror of our age – when are we going to realise it starts at home?

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 November 2017

It’s happened again: last weekend, an angry young man with a record of domestic violence murdered 26 people in a church in Texas. Before the killings, Devin Kelley sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who had previously attended the church. She wasn’t there on Sunday, but Kelley fired indiscriminately - including at a baby aged 18 months.

Kelley had been discharged from the US air force for attacking his wife and child, and he had been arrested in the past for viciously beating a dog. His name has now been added to an infamous – and growing – list of killers who have a record of domestic violence, before escalating to mass murder.

Of course mass shootings are a very American phenomenon, enabled by easy access to guns. But exactly the same pattern is emerging in terrorist incidents in the US and Europe – and it should make us think very hard about how we respond to domestic violence.

These massacres are often described as ‘senseless’ but there’s no doubt that rage against family members is implicated in many mass killings. Research in the US, carried out by an organisation called Everytown for Gun Safety, found that 57 per cent of mass killings between 2009 and 2015 included a family member, spouse or former spouse among the victims.

In one of the most notorious cases in recent history, Adam Lanza shot his mother in the head before killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012. Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in 2015, had been accused of domestic violence by two of his three ex-wives.

Omar Mateen had a long history of domestic abuse before he murdered 49 people last year at a nightclub in Orlando. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who deliberately drove a lorry into pedestrians on the seafront in Nice, killing more than 80 people, used to rant about his wife until she left him two years earlier.

In one extraordinary case, pure misogyny was the cause. Elliott Rodger, a student dropout who murdered six people in southern California in 2014, left behind a video in which he boasted about being an ‘alpha male’ and raged at girls who refused to go out with him.

Here in the UK, a relative of Khalid Masood, who mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed a police officer to death in March this year, described how his wife had fled in terror after only three months of marriage.

Rachid Redouane, one of three men who carried out a similar attack at London Bridge in June, had reportedly abused his wife before she left him in January. The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, is said to have punched a female classmate in the head for wearing a short skirt.

How much evidence do we need? It’s clear that men who beat up their partners and children are much more dangerous than the general public realises – they pose a threat to total strangers, as well as their families.

It’s not so long since police and neighbours would react with a shrug of the shoulders, dismissing even noisy disturbances and desperate cries for help as ‘just a domestic’. But we know now that domestic violence can be a precursor to mass murder, whether the supposed motive is a personal grievance or loyalty to a terrorist organisation.

After the shootings in Texas at the weekend, the US air force admitted it didn’t warn the FBI about Devin Kelley’s record of domestic abuse, leaving him free to acquire guns and kill 26 people. The failure to understand that domestic violence is unlikely to be a one-off – that it might actually turn into lethal violence – is something no country can afford any more.

Men who commit violent assaults on women and children must be charged and punished – their victims need justice and other women they encounter need to be warned about a history of violence.

But the criminal justice system also needs to acknowledge the consequences of not helping women escape violent relationships. To put it bluntly, too many children are growing up in households where violence is normalised.

One of the things we know about domestic violence is that boys who witness it often become perpetrators when they’re older. Research on the background of boys who join teenage gangs in the UK’s big cities suggests that domestic abuse is a common factor – and a similar pattern is starting to emerge with young men who are groomed by terrorist organisations.

This should be a wake-up call. From Florida and Texas to Manchester, London and Paris, mass murder is one of the defining horrors of our age.

If we are going to have any chance of stopping it, we have to accept that it begins in the home. And we urgently need to prevent a habit of domestic violence being passed from fathers to sons.


Christmas is coming and the body count is rising

Sunday Times, 29 October 2017

It is a sad fact that most murder victims are quickly forgotten. Donato Carrisi’s showy detective, Special Agent Vogel, is determined not to let that happen in The Girl in the Fog (translated by Howard Curtis, Abacus £12.99). Vogel is convinced that a teenage girl, who has disappeared from an isolated village in the Italian Alps just before Christmas, is already dead. To keep the case in the public eye, he shamelessly stages stunts and manipulates the media.

Carrisi’s gruesome debut, The Whisperer, was an international sensation. The new novel is more low key, offering daily insights into an investigation that goes badly wrong. Vogel’s insistence that he knows the identity of the killer feels like an obsession, and threatens to end his career. But Carrisi has a series of shocks up his sleeve, forcing readers to question everything in this coldly brilliant exposé of the depths of human nature.

There is a dismal Christmas in store for another family in The Darkest Day by Hakan Nesser (translated by Sarah Death, Mantle £16.99). Nesser is best known for his novels starring the gruff Inspector Van Veeteren, but now he has come up with a younger, more dynamic detective. Inspector Barbarotti is half-Italian, lives in a fictional Swedish town, and is more in touch with the modern world. His first case starts with a birthday party for a newly retired teacher and his eldest daughter.

The celebrations are clouded from the start: the teacher’s wife fantasises about killing him, unable to face the prospect of retiring to Spain with her pedantic spouse; and their son is recovering from a very public humiliation on a reality TV show. When two members of this highly dysfunctional family disappear, Barbarotti has to disentangle years of bad blood and resentment to get to the heart of a thrillingly complex case.

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths (Quercus £16.99) is the fourth in her atmospheric crime series set in the final days of variety acts in the 1950s. The celebrated stage magician Max Mephisto is appearing in Brighton, sharing the bill with a group of nearly naked young women who enact historical scenes. This seedy attempt to get round censorship laws evidently gives someone an idea, leading to the discovery of a body posed to recall the execution of Lady Jane Grey. This fine novel offers the pleasure of familiar characters while taking a sympathetic look at the vulnerability of women in a dying industry.

Ragnar Jonasson is the author of the acclaimed Dark Iceland series. Whiteout (translated by Quentin Bates, Orenda £8.99) brings his inexperienced detective Ari Thor Arason to a deserted village where a young woman has apparently jumped to her death. Ari Thor learns that the woman’s mother and sister died on the same spot 25 years earlier, revealing a tortured history that recalls his painful upbringing. Jonasson has come up with a bleak plot and characters, but his evocation of Iceland’s chilly landscape is hard to put down.


Why are we still locking up women for killing their violent partners?

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 25 October 2017

Women who kill violent partners do not get much sympathy. When members of the public read about a woman who has stabbed her husband after years of abuse, they ask ‘why she didn’t just leave him? Why didn’t she call the police?’ Few of them realise that women whose lives are in danger often call the emergency services, but it doesn’t stop the violence. When women try to defend themselves, the result is a murder charge – and an egregious miscarriage of justice.

Now a campaign is being launched by two organisations, the Centre for Women’s Justice and Justice for Women, to collect evidence about the treatment of women who end up in prison for killing violent abusers. ‘Women who have fought back out of fear and desperation are still being unjustly convicted of murder of their abusers,’ they say.

The campaigners want to improve public understanding of such cases – and the often horrific abuse that led up to them. To that end, they’re asking women who have been charged with killing violent male partners to contact them, whether their cases ended in conviction or acquittal. They’re also seeking information from lawyers, probation officers and social workers who have experience of such cases.

To be absolutely clear, this is about fairness in the justice system, not undue leniency for women. Campaigners say that insufficient support, lack of alternatives and fear keep women in violent relationships, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Two women a week are killed by violent partners or ex-partners, while a small minority end up killing the man who has tormented them.

Justice for Women are currently campaigning for a number of women in this situation, including Farieissia Martin, a mother of two small children. She was convicted of murder two years ago, at the age of 22, after she stabbed her partner, Kyle Farrell. She grabbed a knife when Farrell tried to strangle her but his history of violence was not explored during her trial. She has launched an appeal against both sentence and conviction.

Despite changes in the law in recent years – the old ‘provocation’ defence has been replaced with ‘loss of control’- campaigners argue that women are still being convicted of murder when they should have been found guilty of manslaughter at most. Manslaughter has traditionally been the verdict in cases where men kill their wives, and stories of sympathetic judges accepting that a husband ‘snapped’ and strangled a ‘nagging’ wife are all too familiar.

These are outdated stereotypes, endlessly recycled in seaside postcards showing a diminutive man being pursued by a woman with a rolling pin. They have no more to do with real life than the pernicious myths that influence rape trials, where victims often feel as if they (and not the defendant) are on trial.

Historically, judges and juries were more likely to listen to a ‘nagging’ defence from a man, without requiring much supporting evidence. Even now, female defendants are often treated more harshly, not least because defence lawyers with no experience of such cases fail to document the scale of the violence their clients suffered over a sustained period.

Campaigners see an opportunity here, because the government is currently consulting on a new domestic violence bill. The prime minister, Theresa May, had made tackling domestic violence one of her priorities and the bill is likely to be published in the next 18 months.

The House of Commons justice committee has welcomed guidelines published today by the Sentencing Council, which call for greater consistency in sentencing of cases involving domestic abuse. Crucially, the committee also highlights the importance of considering mitigating factors in the small number of court cases where a victim has turned on her abuser – exactly the kind of situation that campaigners are talking about.

These are small positive steps in a debate that’s being going on for decades. Justice for Women has been working on behalf of women wrongly convicted of murder since the 1980s, when a number of high-profile cases – including those of Sara Thornton and Emma Humphreys – focused attention on the issue.

Sara had been convicted of murder after stabbing her violent, alcoholic husband Malcolm when he threatened her and her daughter. Malcolm Thornton was awaiting trial for assault when Sara killed him in 1989, but his history of violence was not taken into account at her trial. She served several years in prison before she was acquitted of murder (but convicted of manslaughter) at a retrial.

In recent years, the truly shocking scale of domestic violence in this country has become apparent. With refuge places in short supply because of council budget cuts, the resources needed to help the many thousands of victims are simply not in place. That is shocking in itself but if the worst happens, the least we can do is ensure that abused women get a fair trial – just like anyone else accused of a serious crime.