When killing is the only escape

The Brookside trial is helping to focus attention on abused women who murder their husbands, says Sandra Horley
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The Independent Online
The Brookside trial, which reaches its cliffhanger verdict tomorrow evening, has echoed the plight of numerous battered women in Britain who stand accused of murdering their violent partners.

Like Mandy and Beth Jordache, the mother and daughter from the television soap who face life imprisonment if convicted of murder of the violent Trevor Jordache, many abused women who kill find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The fact is that many of them have snapped after years of trauma, like a slow burning fuse finally reaching the explosive. Yet for them the courtroom is little more than an ante-room to prison, a place designed to mete out their punishment, rather than one in which they can defend themselves at a fair trial.

At present, the three defences to murder offer only a slim hope of justice. First, they can claim they are suffering from diminished responsibility on the grounds that they are afflicted by some mental disorder - Mandy and Beth's plea in the Brookside trial.

Second, they can claim to have been provoked to such a degree that they have lost all self-control, although here the law still refuses to recognise the cumulative effects of domestic violence. But, even if fruitful, these two defences will only reduce the murder charge to one of manslaughter, hence affording the women no guarantee of avoiding prison or the stigma of being branded a killer or mentally abnomal.

The third defence is self-defence.The prize is freedom, but if they lose they go to prison for life, the only sentence a judge can give for murder.

The inadequacies of three defences constitute the dilemma facing battered women who kill, whether they are accused of murder or manslaughter. Whichever way they turn, they find themselves backed into a legal corner, having committed an offence I and many others consider an act of self-defence.

Sympathy for battered women is now growing, thanks primarily to campaigning by women's groups who have drawn attention to the fact that domestic violence accounts for 25 per cent of all recorded violent crime; 18 per cent of domestic homicides are wives killed by husbands, compared with 2 per cent of husbands killed by wives. Special police units have been established, media exposure has increased, and the Government recently set up a Home Affairs Select Committee to address the problem.

Only this month, the Home Secretary agreed that the case of Sara Thornton, who was jailed in 1991 for life for murdering her drunken and abusive husband, should be referred back to the Court of Appeal.

Expert testimony to explain the effect of abuse on women has also recently been admitted in such trials, helping the jury to gain a better understanding of the defendant's state of mind at the time of the killing.

These are welcome and significant steps forward for battered women, yetthere is much for us all to learn about their plight.

Few realise how remarkably similar their lives are to those of a hostage, imprisoned in a secret world of punishment, degradation and torture, where life becomes a struggle for survival. However, if a hostage locked in a cell in Beirut saw a chance to stab his captor in the back and escape, he would be considered a hero. When a battered woman does the same in her own home to flee her violent partner, she is placed in the same category as a professional hitman.

Abused women live in daily fear of their lives. Like most trauma victims, they adopt strategies to cope with violence. Some alternate trying to be assertive or compliant, but both strategies may be met with greater violence and psychological abuse. Others blame themselves for the beatings which only leaves their self-respect in tatters.

Over time their personalities change, they lose their independence and feel powerless to leave. Eventually they learn, to their despair, that nothing they can do will alter their partner's behaviour. They are trapped.

How many Brookside devotees over the past week have asked: "Why on earth didn't Mandy and Beth just get out?" If only it was this simple. Far from refusing to contemplate leaving, battered women consider it almost constantly, only to find their partner has blocked the exits.

Contrary to popular opinion, these abusers are not always mindless thugs, but often intelligent, calculating and charming men who weave an intricate, psychological web from which their female partners have little chance of escape. One husband demanded his wife hand over all her savings and her house and car keys. By stealth he had made her totally reliant on him for everything - even food and clothing. She did not even have enough change to buy tampons. And hers is no extraordinary case. It is typical.

In 17 years as a social psychologist, I have given expert evidence to numerous women who have had no alternative but to kill their violent partner. Initially, they have done all the "right" things. They have gone to the police to obtain court injunctions, but their abusers simply tear these up and laugh in the face of the law. They have been moved to safe houses, only to be found. One woman, who was beaten up by her partner in front of a judge in a courtroom, contemplated suicide. For many it is a clear case of kill or be killed.

This grim reality of domestic violence is the side the public - and juries - often do not see and hence find hard to comprehend. The very fact that many abused women survive the beatings is a testament to their strength, which may later give them the courage and resilience to reconstruct their shattered lives. How much pain and suffering could be alleviated if the law was different?

So, what must be done? First, the mandatory life sentence for murder must go. Only then can a battered woman plead self-defence without running an appalling risk.

There must be also be more willingness on the part of the courts to allow expert evidence as a matter of course rather than as an exception. It is only this way that juries - a microcosm of society, after all - can learn that the battered woman is often driven by inhuman circumstances to act drastically. Far from being manhaters hell-bent on revenge, they are rational - albeit traumatised - human beings responding normally to abnormal and dangerous circumstances beyond their control.

The symbol of justice is a woman holding balanced scales. Let us hope the Brookside verdict helps to uphold this balance in the system she represents.

The author is chief executive of Refuge