Man trying to free his mother from prison for killing father hopes landmark case will help coercive control victims

‘The abuse happened over 35 to 40 years. He was controlling what she could do, what she could eat, where she could go, where she couldn’t go, who she couldn’t socialise with,’ says Sally Challen’s son

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Tuesday 26 February 2019 15:46
David Challen speaks to The Independent's Women's correspondent Maya Oppenheim about his mother's case

The son of a woman who was imprisoned for life for killing her husband after decades of psychological abuse is hopeful the landmark case could help other victims of coercive control.

Sally Challen, a mother-of-two who killed her husband, Richard, in a hammer attack, was sentenced to 22 years in prison back in 2011 and has already served eight years in prison.

The 64-year-old’s conviction for murder will be reviewed by the Court of Appeal on 27 and 28 February – marking the first time the defence of coercive and controlling behaviour has been used in a murder trial.

Ms Challen’s lawyers will argue her conviction should be reduced to manslaughter as she was driven to kill her 61-year-old husband after being subjected to decades of coercive control by him.

The appeal, which has gained the backing of leading domestic abuse charities and cross-party MPs, could make legal history and have significant consequences for the way the courts deal with domestic violence.

David Challen, her son, said his father had numerous affairs and visited brothels but would relentlessly lie to his mother and trick her into questioning her own sanity by gaslighting her – a form of psychological manipulation in which an abusive partner brainwashes a victim into doubting themselves.

The 31-year-old said his father subjected her to a “calculated campaign of control” which involved isolating her from friends and family and forcing her to clean and cook.

“My father met my mother when she was 15,” he told The Independent. “He was aged 22. The abuse happened over 35 to 40 years. He was controlling what she could do, what she could eat, where she could go, where she couldn’t go, who she couldn’t socialise with.”

He said that he once even cut the cables in her car to stop her from using it.

“Even when I was eight, I felt something was morally wrong with him, and when the cheating came out in the open, it is so weird to feel that it wasn’t a shock,” he added.

The Court of Appeal will hear how Richard Challen, who lived with his family in Claygate, Surrey, controlled his wife’s finances and repeatedly branded her “crazy” when she questioned him about his affairs.

“This case is so important for thousands of victims who are voiceless who are suffering coercive control,” the younger Mr Challen said. ”Their abuse is not treated with the same severity as physical violence and the courts have exemplified that. We must capitalise on this moment. It sets the tone for how we are to look at cases of coercive control in the courts.”

Mr Challen, whose older brother is also campaigning for their mother’s release, said they both felt helpless watching the original seven-day trial of their mother.

“We felt defenceless in what we could do. We always knew there was more to it but it was not against the law to be psychologically controlling and the law did not understand it. You are gagged,” he said.

He said crude “gender stereotypes” had warped the original trial – with both the media and courts vilifying his mother.

“Women are dealt a harsher, heavier hand in court. There is a bigger smackdown for a woman stepping out of line than a man. In the press, she talked about as being vengeful and jealous and counting out his viagra. Whereas my father was painted as a nice guy. This happens a lot. It is not the correct way to report on domestic violence.”

Mr Challen, who said he had a “fractious relationship” with his father growing up, noted members of his father’s family and family friends of the couple were supporting his mother’s appeal.

“He wanted to be a race car driver,” he recalled of his father. “He was charismatic and flashy in the clothes he would wear. He had a Cartier watch. He would buy Ferraris and go on trips around Europe in the Ferrari and took a picture with topless women on the Ferarri to send out as Christmas cards. He liked fast cars and fast women.”

Mr Challen described his father, who was a car salesman, as a “rule breaker” – saying he liked to get “one over” on the police. He said his father subscribed to the view it was a “man’s world” and had “warped” traditional views of gender.

He recalled a time when his father said he wanted to go to a party where there were 17 and 18-year-old women.

“He would make fun of our mother’s weight and try to get people to join in on bullying her. There was a level of cruelty to his behaviour. This led to him slowly breaking and breaking and breaking her,” he added.

Mr Challen said his mother once asked his father who he had visited the London Eye with after finding two tickets to the tourist attraction in his father’s pockets, but his father responded by falsely accusing her of putting them there.

He said his father would also try and manipulate both of his sons by telling them their mother was mad.

“She says prison only gets worse,” he said of his mother who will turn 65 on the first day of the hearing. “To a degree, there is still a dependency and she still loves him.”

After the attack, Ms Challen, then 56, drove to East Sussex with the intention of ending her life, but suicide counsellors talked her out of it.

Clare Wade QC will argue in her appeal against the conviction this week that Ms Challen, whose life sentence was previously reduced to 18 years on appeal, was subjected to 40 years of coercive and controlling behaviour which amounted to both the underlying circumstances and ultimate trigger that led her to kill her husband.

Documents including emails from Challen to his wife and accounts of his allegedly abusive behaviour, provided by neighbours, friends and family, will be submitted as evidence to the appeal.

Coercive control was only passed into law in 2015 and was not widely understood as a type of domestic violence during the time of her trial.

Harriet Wistrich, Ms Challen’s solicitor, said: “We are not arguing in this case that coercive control would provide a complete defence to murder, but the circumstances of a lifelong marriage amount to a form of provocation, which should reduce a murder conviction to manslaughter.”

The appeal is being backed by campaigning group Justice For Women who helped secure the release of Sara Thornton and other women who killed their violent and abusive husbands. Hundreds of supporters are expected to join Mr Challen and his family outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday.

James Challen, the eldest son who is 35, said: “I’m terrified of the outcome, like we all are, but I’m also hopeful because of the vast amount of support we have seen for her. It is hugely important, as securing justice for my Mum would be the first step in ensuring that this form of abuse and its victims are recognised and treated appropriately by the legal system.”

“No one gets anything out of this conviction and that has been the most psychologically damaging thing for us since it,” his younger brother David added. ”Her release would mean her having freedom for the very first time in her life as an adult woman.”

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