'It was years before I believed he was dead'

Eight years ago Josephine Smith took up a gun and shot her violent husband dead. She was sentenced to life, but now an appeal could free her sooner.
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I'm sitting at a little Formica table, across from a woman in her late thirties. Josephine Smith is a fine-featured blonde woman with a resolute, soft voice. From time to time her fingers tremble slightly, but otherwise she seems confident. Her appearance gives no clue to her past. On a sultry summer evening eight years ago Jo Smith shot her husband dead as he lay in bed.

I'm sitting at a little Formica table, across from a woman in her late thirties. Josephine Smith is a fine-featured blonde woman with a resolute, soft voice. From time to time her fingers tremble slightly, but otherwise she seems confident. Her appearance gives no clue to her past. On a sultry summer evening eight years ago Jo Smith shot her husband dead as he lay in bed.

"I remember being in the bedroom - but I can't look at him, I can't look at his eyes," Jo tells me, reliving the moment so vividly that she slips into the present tense. "I'm sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting for him to come after me. Then I put the children into the car and drove to my mother's. I put them to bed and told her what happened, and she called the police. I still didn't think he was dead. It was two or three years before I stopped thinking he was waiting out there, at the gates, that he'd be waiting for me."

That was on 30 July, 1992. Since her trial in 1993 Jo has been in prison, serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband. But her situation is looking more hopeful now than it has done for years. Her case is currently being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and it may reach an appeal next year. Then, her lawyers will argue that her crime should not be seen as murder, claiming two grounds for her defence: diminished responsibility; and provocation, due to her husband's violence.

Jo herself does not speak much about the legal niceties of her case. "To be honest, it's all a bit above my head," she says. But as she speaks about her life with her husband, Brian, you begin to glimpse a life lived in hell; a hell no less terrible because it was roaring away in the middle of quiet, rural Norfolk, with its respectable villages and neat fields stretching into the horizon.

Jo grew up on a small farm, and when she talks about her childhood her dark blue eyes crinkle a little, and you get a sense of the girl she would have been years ago - shy and gentle, with an uneventful, happy future apparently stretching ahead of her. "I spent more time at home than at school. That was the happiest time of my life. It was fantastic." When Jo was nine her parents moved from the farm to a small town, Downham Market. Suddenly everything started to go wrong at home; her older brother was killed in a car crash and her father fell chronically ill.

At the age of 16, she got a job in King's Lynn, working in a garage. For a young woman who had spent her life in a quiet, isolated home full of illness and grief, just the bus journey to King's Lynn was an adventure. And at the garage was the man who was to become her husband, a mechanic called Brian. "He just swept me off my feet," she says. "A couple of days after I started there was a great big bouquet of flowers on my desk. Red carnations. The next day I had gone out to buy a birthday present for my best friend, some perfume, and he looked at it, and said, how do you know she'll like that, and I said, well I like it. The next day there was a big bottle of that perfume waiting for me."

Jo hadn't even been into a pub for a drink before she met Brian. All of a sudden she was going out for dinner, being given expensive clothes, driven around in her lover's car. "He spoilt me silly," she says, smiling a little. "It was all very dramatic, very intense." After two years they got engaged, and bought a little cottage in Watlington, smack between where Jo had been brought up and where Brian had been brought up.

Soon after they bought the cottage Jo saw Brian in the grip of anger for the first time, an explosion that she didn't expect and couldn't explain. "We were doing up the cottage. One night he got annoyed and went in and smashed up all the work he'd done. He thought it wasn't good enough." But the wedding itself was "fairytale-ish". She wore the perfect white dress, they went to a perfect country church, everything looked wonderful.

And everything went on looking wonderful, for years and years. In 1981 they moved to a bigger house, which they gradually transformed into the dream home of middle England, with five bedrooms, a snooker room, everything just so. They were running their own building firm and they soon had three young children. That was the façade; a pretty middle-class home with everything in its place. The reality was altogether different. The building firm failed, they fell into debt and resorted to fraud in order to keep their home and business going. And Jo's home was full of fear.

"The worst part was the atmosphere, not knowing if things were going to blow up," Jo says. She pauses, and then ploughs on. "By the last couple of years, he would telephone me six or seven times a day, pop in four or five times a day. He was very, very obsessive. He liked everything just so - everything immaculate, freshly polished. When he came home for tea the children had to be upstairs, they couldn't come down all evening. The violence wasn't regular. There would be months of nothing. Then he'd be hitting me two or three times a week. I never went to the doctor. Only once, when he pushed me downstairs and I was pregnant. I told the doctor I fell down the stairs. If I had bruises or black eyes, I hid them. I would pretend I wasn't at home if people called. I'd keep the children off school."

Although Jo believes he never stopped loving her, the man she married was now a different person. "Sex wasn't a shared thing any more," she says. "He began to watch horrendous videos, with bondage situations, rape, really. And he crossed the border with me. He followed the videos act for act. I sometimes thought, if it weren't for the kids, I could die happily. Life wasn't worth living."

Over the years she has spent in prison, Jo has pulled herself back from the brink, and she talks clearly about the harm she has done to her children - who are currently being looked after by her elderly mother - and her small, ordinary hopes for the future. "I'd like to be there for my children. I'd like to work." So why, if she can talk about it now, did she never call for help during those hellish years? "In these countryish bits of Norfolk, you don't talk," Jo says. "I felt totally isolated. You're so busy protecting what people see of you. If I left, he would have come after me - he told me that often enough. And if I'd called anyone, I thought the children would be taken into care. I couldn't stand that."

During July 1992 Jo was out of it much of the time, she says, washing down prescription drugs with brandy. In her memories of the last week of Brian's life, whole evenings are missing. And then on Thursday night, Brian came in late in the evening. "Suddenly we started to argue about everything. For five years I hadn't said anything. Everything I should have said before, I said that night. Eventually he went to bed. I don't remember a conscious thought of wanting to kill him. I just felt, this has to stop. I remember being in the bedroom, but I can't look at him."

When Jo's case came to trial, the violence she had suffered were sidelined. "They said - did he hit you - and I said yes, and then the prosecution said - the odd slap is quite normal - and I couldn't explain what it was really like," Jo says.

Jo's solicitor, Louis Charalambous believes that the recent advances in understanding what is often called "battered-woman syndrome" will be key to Jo's appeal. Recent cases such as that of Sara Thornton and Emma Humphreys, freed on appeal after their murder convictions were overturned, have produced a deeper understanding of the effects of living with constant abuse. "Her actions are explicable in the context of the syndrome. We can now raise the defence of provocation more convincingly, since recent cases make it clear that there can be a slow fuse, that someone can be provoked over time."

Julie Bindel, a spokeswoman for Justice for Women, the campaign group that has supported Jo throughout her sentence, agrees that a change has been seen in the legal system since Jo's case first came to trial. "People see that sometimes there is no choice - that it's about women choosing to live, not ending up dying." Although much has changed, there is still a lot to be done. Justice for Women estimates that about 70 women are currently serving sentences for the murder or manslaughter of their partners.

In the end, Jo killed to save herself, but she will not present herself as a victim, or Brian as a monster. She is still puzzling, as she will all her life, over how their fairytale turned into their nightmare. "We were both victims," she says. "It was a cumulative situation. We lost our bearings. Everything was gathering momentum. There were the money problems, the violence, the sexual side, everything was so heightened."

And not for a moment will she excuse herself, especially when she talks about her children. "When I think about the things my children have missed... a home, a mum and dad. The role models we have given them are horrible." For the first time, her voice cracks.

A public meeting on Jo Smith's case is being held at Conway Hall, 28 September, 6pm; Justice for Women 020-8374 2948