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Court frees woman who shot abusive husband

A woman jailed for life nine years ago for shooting dead her husband while he slept was freed by the Court of Appeal yesterday after judges were told she had been the victim of an abusive relationship.

Josephine Smith's conviction for murder was quashed and replaced with a verdict of manslaughter. The court accepted that she had been provoked into killing her husband. She was given a 10-year sentence for the new conviction and the court ruled that she should be released immediately rather than serve another year.

Smith, 41, told reporters as she was freed from her cells at the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday that she was looking forward to the reunion with her three children. "My focus at the moment is to get back with my family," she said. "It has taken an awful long time, but I'm very pleased with the result and I can only hope that other people get the support that I have had."

Her solicitor, Louis Charalambous, said Smith should never have been tried for murder in the first place because she had pleaded guilty to manslaughter at her trial.

Smith shot her husband, Brian, as he lay in bed asleep in Watlington, near King's Lynn, Norfolk, on 30 July 1992 with a gun taken from her parents' house a week earlier.

Later she told police that during the marriage she had suffered years of emotional and physical abuse. She claimed her husband beat her repeatedly and that she hid bruises beneath make-up and polo-neck sweaters.

At her trial in 1993 at Norwich Crown Court, the jury heard her husband used to monitor her car mileage and telephone calls, as well as force her to perform sexual acts depicted in pornographic videos.

But the prosecution refused to accept Smith's plea of guilty to manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility. It suggested that she had made up or exaggerated the abuse to excuse cold-blooded murder, and presented evidence of previous dishonesty involving mortgage and income support fraud.

Her counsel, Vera Baird QC, told the three judges yesterday that there were four grounds of appeal, which all related to the defence of provocation. But she said that the trial judge "wrongly restricted the jury's attention to the events immediately surrounding the killing and did not ask them to consider a whole history of potentially provocative behaviour that had occurred prior to that".

Smith's lawyers and women's rights groups have consistently argued that the importance of her abusive relationship and the issue of provocation were not properly explored by the courts.

Since her conviction the law has changed, so that it now recognises "battered women's syndrome" as a defence to murder. But the wheels of justice have turned slowly and Smith has had to wait nine years for the chance to clear her name of murder.

As far back as 1998 her lawyers submitted her file to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Because the review involved no new evidence, the commission fast-tracked the case. But the commission still took three years for to refer her case back to the Court of Appeal, and another year before a panel of judges could hear it.