Mary Dejevsky: Murderess is too harsh a word

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The Independent Online

You don't often hear the word "murderess" these days; it has gone the way of "actress" and other gender-specific nouns deemed somehow to demean the individual concerned. Except that in the case of "murderess", the gender specificity seems rather to magnify the vilification, and I wager it will be used, if it hasn't been already, to describe Joanne Hill, the woman just sentenced by Chester Crown Court to 15 years' imprisonment for killing Naomi, her four-year-old child.

Mrs Hill was 32, had a chequered psychiatric history, and had pleaded diminished responsibility. But two considerations surely sealed her fate. One was the recording of her police interview, where she recounted, second by chilling second, how she took her reluctant daughter for a bedtime bath, fully intending to do what she did, and forced the child's head under the water until she died.

The other was the prosecution's comprehensive demolition of her character. If you judge by the court reports, Mrs Hill had no redeeming feature. She resented Naomi's handicap – which was, the court was repeatedly told, "mild" – and dressed her in trousers to conceal her calipers. She had been treated for depression, had attempted suicide, and been unfaithful to her husband. She had a drink problem – may even have been an alcoholic. Oh yes, and she had proposed putting Naomi up for adoption. The jury took a bare 90 minutes to reach its verdict. Speaking after the verdict her (now estranged) husband called her "evil".

Now maybe there is nothing wrong with any of that. You can argue that it is high time judges and juries stopped finding mitigating psychological circumstances all over the place and called murder, when as clearly premeditated as this, murder. The long prison sentence also conveys the – thoroughly welcome – message that one life is absolutely as valuable as another. Naomi's damaged legs did not make her worth any less before the law.

Yet still I find this case troubling. Above all, it is its open and shut nature, its black-white, good-and-evil certainty, that disturbs; the emphasis on effect to the apparent exclusion of unhappy cause. Can Mrs Hill's state of mind, her depression and drinking, really be seen in isolation from Naomi's condition (however "mild")?

What assistance, if any, was she, or the family, offered? It was suggested in court that help was rejected – but was it suitable, or were social services or whoever just relieved to have a potentially burdensome case off their books? Mrs Hill's drink problem was no secret to anyone. And what of the father? Simon Hill seems to have been a truly honourable exception. Unlike most men faced with a damaged child and an alcoholic wife, Mr Hill hung on in there. When his work shifts allowed, he would get Naomi up, dress her and take her to nursery. But when they didn't? It was, after all, Joanne Hill who collected Naomi on that fateful day and got her ready for bed.

After the verdict, Mr Hill spoke affectingly of the loss of his "princess", but who was the carer of less glamorous resort? Is there not a hint of a double standard here: the father lauded for exceeding stereotypical expectations of a man in such circumstances; his wife condemned for falling short of the stereotypical mother who "copes"?

There is no doubt that Mrs Hill killed her daughter. But society's expectations of women, inadequate care services, and an adversarial court system that magnifies vice and virtue could, and should, have been in the dock, too.