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.

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