Sally Challen: Woman killed husband with hammer after 40 years of coercive control and humiliation, court hears

Mother of two launches legal bid to downgrade murder conviction to manslaughter

Tim Wyatt
Wednesday 27 February 2019 16:57
David Challen speaks to The Independent's Women's correspondent Maya Oppenheim about his mother's case

A woman who was jailed for life for killing her husband with a hammer after decades of psychological abuse has begun a historic legal challenge to her conviction.

Sally Challen, who was imprisoned for 22 years in 2011 for the murder of her husband Richard, appeared before the Court of Appeal by videolink from prison on Wednesday.

Her lawyers told the court she was wrongly convicted because the issue of “coercive control” was not properly understood at the time of her original trial.

The 65-year-old mother of two bludgeoned Mr Challen to death with a hammer in August 2010 but hopes to convince judges her conviction for murder should be downgraded to manslaughter.

Clare Wade, representing Ms Challen, said “fresh evidence” on the effects of coercive control would be introduced which would show how the decades of humiliation and psychological trauma meant her client was in an “altered mood state” when she killed her husband.

Ms Wade argued the original defence did not make enough of this issue during the 2011 trial, which allowed the prosecution to wrongly explain her hammer attack as being motivated by jealousy.

David Challen, Ms Challen’s 31-year-old son told The Independent on Tuesday his father had frequently conducted affairs and visited brothels, but relentlessly lied about this to his mother, tricking her into questioning her own sanity.

Richard Challen also forcibly isolated his wife from her friends and family, controlling where she went, what she did and even what she ate, Mr Challen said.

“The lack of knowledge about the theory of coercive control at the time of the appellant's trial meant that the partial defence of diminished responsibility was not put as fully as it could have been,” Ms Wade told the Court of Appeal.

“The harm caused to the appellant as a result of the coercive control was not sufficiently appreciated by psychiatrists at the time of the trial and the control to which the appellant was subjected masked the full extent of her mental condition.”

As Ms Challen began to consider finally leaving her abusive husband, she began to “decompensate and entered an altered mood state”, she added.

Evan Stark, a retired social worker and expert on coercive control, also gave evidence about how the technique worked.

“Coercive control is designed to subjugate and dominate, not merely to hurt," he said.

“It achieves compliance essentially by making victims afraid and by depriving them of rights, resources and liberties, without which they cannot effectively defend themselves, escape, refuse demands or resist."

The law only recognised coercive control in 2015, meaning it was not available as a defence for Ms Challen during her original trial for murder.

Her lawyers, who are supported by the advocacy group Justice for Women which campaigns on behalf of those who fight back against violent partners, will argue had the 2011 jury been given evidence now available on coercive control Ms Challen would have only been convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

Numerous supporters of the 65-year-old gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London as the hearing began.

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David Challen, who was among the protesters, said: “This affects not just our mother but thousands of victims who don't have a voice, both men and women.

“Me and my brother have spoken out, not just for our parents but for other victims too.”

The hearing is expected to continue for two days.