Sisters to the death

Two months ago Emma Humphreys and Sara Thornton were both in prison serving life sentences for murdering their men. Now they are out - one after a successful appeal, one on bail. They know whom to thank: a small group of angry women whose commitment knows no bounds and who require that Humphreys and Thornton now join them in their battle against the oppressions of masculine justice. In the war between the sexes, this is the front line. E. Jane Dickson reports
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Emma Humphreys studies the Tarot. She knows, because she has seen it in the cards, that somewhere in her life there is a man who will take care of her. There was a man, years ago, who told Emma he loved her and wanted to protect her. But Trevor Ar mitage died in 1985. Emma killed him. At 28, Emma Humpreys looks and sounds 14. She speaks with affection of the 25 stuffed animals who share her bed, and uses two hands to lift a glass of Jack Daniels and Coke to her lips. Jangly bangles mask a tracery of slash-marks on her wrists, anda sh ort, denim playsuit flaps loose around her bone-thin frame. It beggars belief that this affectingly frail figure could overpower a man twice her age and size. But she did. She took two knives and stabbed him, and she served ten years of a life sentence for murder. Freed last July after an intensive four-and-a half year campaign by the feminst pressure group, Justice for Women, Humphreys now lives as part of a therapeutic community in Kent. Her voice still shakes when she talks about Trevor Armitage. She will not - or cannot - pronounce his name, but she is absolutely sure of what she has to say:"His death was the biggest cry for help I ever made in my entire life."

When Emma first met Armitage, she was 16 and working as a prostitute. Armitage, 32, was one of her clients. Not the most romantic circumstances for a love affair, but Emma wasn't brought up with big ideas of romance. As a child, she regularly witnessed t he violent abuse of her alcoholic mother by her alcoholic step-father. At 12, she tried to kill herself; and at13 she was living on the streets and supporting herself by prostitution and casual work in the porn industry. Armitage was no white knight. He had a history of violent assault, and was known to the Vice Squad,but, when he offered affection and shelter in his home, Emma gratefully accepted. During the six months the couple lived together, Armitage subjected her to continuous emotional and sexual abuse. He didn't mind her earning money as a prostitute, but he was prone to fits of jealous rage. When, in the course of work, Emma was gang-raped and felt unable to continue a sexual relationship with Armitage, he raped her himself. Repeatedly. On the night of February 25, 1985, Armitage was in a worse than usual mood. Earlier in the evening, he and Emma had gone to the pub with two other men, and Armitage had proposed a "gang bang". When they got home, Emma went upstairs and slit her wrists, then panicked and hid the knives under her body. Armitage stripped and lay down beside her, and Emma, knowing that he would want sex, and fearing that he would find the weapons and use them against her, stabbed him once in the stomach. He died soonafte rwards. In court, Emma's plea of manslaughter on grounds of provocation was denied. She was convicted of murder and detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure (there is no time limit on the sentence handed down to juveniles for murder). In prison she made 12 more attemp ts on her own life, and battled with anorexia nervosa. "Perhaps," said Mr Justice Jones, presiding at Emma's trial, "it is the best possible sentence that could be passed upon her in her own interest." * The sentencing of women who kill their abusive partners is this season's legal hot potato.With the highly publicised release of Humphreys in July, and the granting of bail to Sara Thornton in August, public opinion has focused on a criminal justice syste m which often appears to treat women accused of murdering violent men with a summary harshness one step removed from the ducking stool. There are 50 women currently serving life sentences for killing their partners in British jails, and the Home Secretar y has been urged to review their cases. Leading the grassroots crusade for legislative reform is Justice for Women, the feminist organisation which mounted the successful appeal campaigns and mobilised nationwide support for both Humphreys and Thornton. Among the now familiar scenes of jubila tion outside the Court of Appeal, in the middle of all the chanting and hugging, whistle-blowing and candle-lighting, Justice for Women are the ones soberly reminding the media that the fight is still half-fought, and that, for every vaunted "victory for British justice",there are a dozen unresolved travesties. Unfunded, under-resourced, and totally uncompromising in its radical ideology, JFW is run from the North London home of founder members Julie Bindel and Harriet Wistrich. It is something of a shock, given the scope of JFW's activities and its ubiquitous media profile, to learn that the day-to-day running of the organisation literally comes down to two women and a dog. Peggy, a dementedly friendly black mongrel, does her bit for the cause by snarling like Cerberus at the approach of a male footfall.

The campaign HQ can double as a safe house for women on the run from abusive men and a scarcely less abusive press (Emma Humphreys was consistently portrayed in the tabloids in terms of her nubility and her nose-ring ). Immediately following her release, Humphreys, having nowhere else to go, moved into the spare room and became absorbed in the normal pleasures of washing her hair and making cups of coffee - pleasures denied her for a decade - while triumphant campaigners whooped and wept around her.

"It was unreal," she now recalls. "My social worker was getting pissed off with my creative writing teacher, and Harriet and Julie wouldn^t even allow me a drink in case it messed up my medication." These days, Humphreys appears to view Wistrich andBind el as a pair of bolshie elder sisters, but the relationship was not always so relaxed. "It was hard, " says Humphreys."The Home Office wasn't happy with me at the time, and I'd got some people saying,'Oh, Justice for Women, they're just trying to exploit you', and it was like, 'Who do I believe? Where does my heart lie?' Sometimes I thoug ht that they [Harriet and Julie] hated me, that it was Sara [Thornton] they wanted out more than me. But I know that, if they hadn't replied to my letters and done all the work that they did, I wouldn't be here now. I'd be a basket case in prison." There is certainly no whiff of the case-worker about Bindel and Wistrich. That is not part of their remit: 'When a woman approaches us for help, we make one thing quite clear," Wistrich says. "Their agenda is to get out of prison. Our agenda, as well as helping them do that, is to use their case to highlight other issues. We're not a women's support group, we're a campaigning organisation, and we make it absolutely plain to the women we work with that we don't just expect them to say 'thanks' and disapp ear once they're out of jail. We absolutely insist that they give us something back." Humpreys nods emphatically. "I'd really like to see the JFW campaign grow," she says. "At the moment, there's a lot of concentration on men abusing women, whereas women abuse women as well - look at my mother. I'd like to do something about that." This is almost certainly not the kind of consciousness-raising exercise Wistrich and Bindel had in mind, but they are not about to deflate Humphreys' mood. And, as Humphreys points out, suddenly and wearily astute, she has had too many labels slapped on her to start calling herself a feminist. Feminism, on the other hand - the original. radical, dialectical kind - is what Justice for Women is all about. Both BIndel and Wistrich have been heavily involved at the political end of the women's movement since they were teenagers in the 1970s. Wistr ich, 35, is the daughter of Enid Wistrich, a former head of Greater London Council's censorship unit, and Ernest Wistrich, erstwhile Labour parliamentary candidate. For the last four year, Wistrich, a trainee solicitor, has put her career on hold in order to devote her energies to the campaign. This autumn she will go on to take articles. Bindel, 33, is a community worker with ten years experience in the field of vi olence against women. She is currently researching a project funded by the Home Office to find ways of improving support for victims of domestic violence. Neither woman is interested in the cult of personality. Indeed, they rarely slip into the first per son. Wistrich and Bindel, with a third woman, Hilary McCollum, started Justice for Women in 1991, in solidarity with Southall Black Sisters' campaign to free Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who burned her abusive husband in his bed while he slept. JFW now has15 women volunteers and a network of sympatheticsoli citors and barristers who give their services free. Run on the most slender of shoestrings, it has thus far resisted seeking funding from any government body or charitable institution for fear of compromising their politics. Men may become affiliated members, but they are not welcomed to the inner circle. And any outsiders are carefully vetted. Recently, a letter arrived from a researcher hoping to work with the campaign.The gender of the applicant was not clear from the signature. A short, written quiz on the subject of pre-menstrual tension was suggested as a means of settling the issue.JFW are hardline but not humourless. "We're very consciously and definitely a women-only group,"says Wistrich. "We're autonomous and women-only, not separatist," Bindel qualifies, with the merest flicker of irony. "If a man tells us that he's been chatting with his mates and he thinks it' s really important to give women a better deal, well, that's just fine. But this is a forum for women to organise, and for women to claim the credit for combating violence against women, and I'm afraid men really can't take the credit for that. Violence against women and children is the most significant tool of male supremacy." Neither is motivated by personal experience of domestic violence. "It's quite odd," Bindel allows. "Because we have chosen to live with other women, domestic violence is the one aspect of violence against women that we're not at risk from. But all women have experienced violence from men - if no t actual violence, then the threat of violence. It just depends on how you define it. I would define it from flashing and sexual harassment on a continuum right through to pornography and rape." They are aware that their unbending ideology has stigmatised them in some quarters as old-style, men-hating dinosaurs. And, frankly, they don't give a damn. At least, they reason, you know where you are with Social Constructionism. Which is more than ca n be said for the touchy-feely,"lifestyle feminism of the Gaia generation". "We're not into cultural feminism," Bindel explains. "We're not interested in living in Womensland, using natural tampons, or any semi-religious lunacy like worshipping the Goddess. We don't think all women are our sisters, and we don't think all men ar e inherently bad. All we're saying is that institutionalised violence against women has got this far because men seized power. And now we want to live in an equal society." " They're not going to change unless we confront them," adds Wistrich. "We don't want power for women over men: we believe that power corrupts. But it may be necessary for women to take power, at least temporarily." The public is unlikely to care how many feminists can dance on the head of a pin, but much harder to ignore is the damning catalogue of unequal judgements they have compiled to support their claim against the British criminal justice system. Kiranjit Ahluwalia was given a life sentence for the murder of her husband. For ten years, she had been repeatedly beaten, burned and raped. The judge said that the violence against her was "not serious". By contrast, Singh Bisla strangled his "nagging" wife, Abnash, "to shut her up" after two hours of verbal abuse. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence and walked free. The judge said: "You have suffered, through no fault of your own, a terrible existence for a very long time." In 1990, Sara Thornton stabbed her husband as he lay drunk. She had endured repeated beatings, sought help from numerous agencies, called the police for help, and finally charged her husband with assault. She was convicted of murder and sentenced tolife . The judge said that Thornton could have "walked out or gone upstairs." Her appeal comes up in December. One year after Thornton's trial, Joseph McGrail killed his common-law wife as she lay drunk by kicking her many times in the stomach. He was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter and walked free. The judge expressed "every sympathy" for Mc Grail, adding, "this lady would have tried the patience of a saint." And the list goes on. When you get to the case of Thomas Corlette, who killed his wife for moving a mustard pot to the wrong side of the table (three years, manslaughter), it all becomes too absurd, like some crazed scene from Kafka. Clearly, no two leg al cases are strictly comparable. But the fact is, 40 per cent of women who kill their partners are convicted of murder, and only 25 per cent of men. JFW have drafted specific legal reforms which might redress the balance. They are well aware of the temerity of "a bunch of women" telling the judiciary how to do their job, but reason that the professionals have yet to come up with a sensible system: since it is women who are most disastrously affected by domestic violence, they should at least be consulted on framing the laws. Chief among their recommendations to the Home Affairs select commiteee is the introduction of a new defence plea of "self-preservation", which would commute a murder charge to "manslaughter". Quite apart from the fact that murder carries a mandatory life sentence, JFW feel that the charge of homicide wrongl y stigmatises women who are themselves the injured parties. "We believe there is a crime called murder, and we believe that it should be punished as such," says Wistrich. "We're not saying that all women who kill should be exempted from punishment. If a woman comes to us accused of doing her husband in for the insurance money, we won't touch her with a bargepole. But we do not think that 'murder' is an appropriate label for a women who kill after sustained violence."

It is precisely the sustained nature of domestic abuse, where violence can go on for years before any charge is brought, which places women at such a disadvantage in the eyes of the law. JFW's notable coup in the handling of Emma Humphrey's appeal was to prove that her whole tragic life had been one long act of provocation. At the time of her trial in 1986, Humphreys had been so traumatised and intimidated by police questioning that she offered practically no explanation for her action and just signed a statement drafted by the interrogating officer. When JFW took up her case, Harriet Wistrich visited her in prison every week . Slowly, as Humphreys's confidence grew and she felt able to speak about events she had spent years repressing, Wistrich was able to draw out the details of her life with Armitage and the circumstances of her childhood. After three years of these weekly s essions, Wistrich could then assemble a "life-statement" which Humphreys's solicitor, Rohit Sanghvi, used to present the case to The Court of Appeal. Humphreys' acquittal was an encouraging indication of how far the courts are now prepared to stretch th e plea of "provocation" in cases of domestic abuse. JFW's proposed "self-preservation" defence would go one step further and address a situation where a defendant who suffered repeated violence from a partner, and who has every reason to think it will continue, might honestly believe that she had no alte rnative but to kill her abuser. The new defence would be available, for example, to a woman whose husband battered and raped her every Saturday night and who eventually stabs him in his sleep on Sunday morning. In the soundbite culture of public debate, any relaxation of homicide legislation is automatically construed as "a licence to kill." Clearly, there are some - most notably those in the "feminist backlash" camp - who fear that what JFW really want is car te blanche for hordes of homicidal harpies to slaughter men willy-nilly in the streets. Bindel and Wistrich have their arguments ready for all-comers. Wistrich: "There is no statistical evidence to show that when laws are relaxed, or when judges make a sympathetic comment, that women go out on a rampage of murder. The irony of this old chestnut is that we already have a licence to kill, in the current 'provocation' defence. All the man has to say is that the woman gave him a hard time, threatened to leave him, or threatened infidelity - what we call the "nagging and shagging defence". Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the Home Affairs select commitee, does not, however, seem disposed to swingeing reform. "It's my belief," he says, "that people can be deterred from killing by the awful consequences. If you say that the consequences won't quite be like that, you'll be able to say [to a woman defendant] 'well, you know, you have been under tremendous pressure all your life, and you can always call family and friends to say what a terrible beast he was, and what you did was on the spurof t he moment. Then you can get rid of him and you won't have to be punished for too long. It will be just a year or two and you'll be out.' Well, that might be worth it.I agree that a deterrent sentence doesn't deter someone who is mad or so beside themselv es with passion that they don't reason, but not everyone who kills does it without reasoning.". Julie Bindel has heard all this before, and is beginning to lose patience. "We do not advocate the killing of men, no matter how bad they have been," she says, sounding less than reassuring. "But we will give every sympathy to women who have been driven to such a desperate action."

The answerphone chez Wistrich and Bindel clicks and whirrs constantly with media requests for data, pictures of abused and imprisoned women ("got anything a bit less hatchet-faced, luv?"), and quotes on issues. With Sara Thornton's appeal apparentlydone and dusted (her case comes before the Court of Appeal on 4 December, but it would be extremely rare for the Court to grant bail and not acquit.), JWF are now precoccupied with the case of Josephine Smith, a Norwich woman currently serving life for killi ng her husband. Smith shot her husband after years of violent abuse. When she tried to leave him, he threatened to track her down and kill their three children. Bindel and Wistich will always find time, however, for the odd grand gesture. On November 25 (which is International Violence Against Women Day), they will demand amnesty for all women serving life sentences in British jails for killing violent men.They don't stand a chance in hell of carrying this one off, but it will get headlines. It's strategic," explains Bindel."It's a way to have a go at the Home Secretary. We want people to see these women as political prisoners. If we don't set ourselves up for attack, we don't get to defend our ideas. And if we don't get to defend our ideas, we don't get to save women's lives. "But," she adds, "the fight is half the fun." Justice for women? Under the 1957 Homicide Act, a murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence. The charge may be reduced to manslaughter in one of three ways. The defendant can plead self- defence, provocation, or - the defence most frequently used by women who kil l violent men - diminished responsibility. Justice for Women argues that all three existing defences are weighted against female defendants. The defence of diminished responsibility requires proof of "abnormality of mind". They contend that it is the mi nd of the violent man which is abnormal and not the woman's. JFW is also vehemently opposed to the use of "expert witnesses" testifying to "Battered Wives Syndrome" under the diminished responsibility defence. The admission of Battered Wives Syndrome ( a set of behavioural characteristics similar to post-traumatic stress disorder) has already carried several successful defences. JFW are opposed to it on the principle that it suggests that the women have a disorder. They are also concerned that women who do not "fit" the syndrome will be at a disadvantage. The defences of "provocation" and "self-defence" were, they argue, framed with specific reference to male experience. Self-defence dates back to to the arcane etiquette of swordsmanship; it requires the defendant to be under immediate threat of, or actua lly suffering, violence. "Provocation", claim JFW, arose to deal with the situation of men returning from war and killing their wives after discovering they had been unfaithful. "Sudden, temporary loss of control" must be proved as "the essence of provocation". Both defences, they argue, are inappropriate to domestic violence, where the women may have suffered the cumulative effect of repeated acts of provocation. While the courts have traditionally seen the period of time between the provoking act and thehomi cidal act as a "cooling down period", for many women it is more properly a "boiling over ' period. The sucessful appeals of Kiranijt Ahluwalia and Emma Humphreys signal a wider acceptance of the the "slow-fuse"argument.