Sally Challen: Woman who killed abusive husband with hammer walks free as retrial is dropped

Old Bailey accepts lesser charge after hearing decades of abuse contributed to killing

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 07 June 2019 12:54
David Challen speaks to The Independent's Women's correspondent Maya Oppenheim about his mother's case

A domestic abuse victim jailed for killing her husband in a hammer attack will walk free after a judge ordered she should not face a retrial.

Sally Challen, 65, was found guilty of murdering 61-year-old Richard in Surrey and imprisoned for life in 2011.

The mother-of-two, who spent nearly a decade behind bars, claimed she suffered years of controlling and humiliating abuse before she killed her husband in August 2010.

Speaking outside court, Ms Challen said: “I just want to say how happy I am and want to thank my legal team and my family who have stood by me through all of this.”

She added: “Many other women who are victims of abuse as I was are in prison today serving life sentences. I know because I have met them. They should be serving manslaughter not murder.

“I just hope the criminal justice system will recognise that abuse happens and they should take it more seriously.”

Ms Challen, from Claygate, Surrey, admitted manslaughter but pleaded not guilty to murdering her husband.

Her conviction was quashed in February and she was due to face a retrial for his murder next month in light of new evidence about her mental state at the time.

But the Old Bailey accepted the lesser charge on Friday after hearing decades of abuse had contributed to the killing.

She was sentenced to nine years and four months for the manslaughter of her husband – time she has already served in custody.

Prosecutor Caroline Carberry QC said the plea was accepted following a psychiatric report which concluded Ms Challen was suffering an “adjustment disorder”.

Mr Justice Edis said the killing followed “years of controlling, isolating and humiliating conduct” with the added provocation of her husband’s “serial multiple infidelity”.

Sally Challen, flanked by her son David, during a press conference yesterday after she left the Old Bailey

Ms Challen, who has already made legal history with her case, was able to appeal her murder conviction after a change in the law in 2015 which recognised psychological manipulation, or coercive control, as a type of domestic abuse and a crime.

Coercive control was not widely understood as a form of domestic violence during the time of her trial. Ms Challen’s appeal gained the backing of leading domestic abuse charities and cross-party MPs.

Ms Challen, who has always denied murdering the former car dealer, has been on bail since April. At a previous hearing, Ms Challen was released on bail into the care of her sons, James and David, who have supported her throughout her legal ordeal. She had previously been held in custody at HMP Bronzefield.

David, her 31-year-old son, told The Independent in a previous interview his father had frequently conducted affairs and visited brothels, but relentlessly lied about this to his mother, tricking her into questioning her own sanity.

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

The couple, who separated in 2009, were trying to reconcile in August 2010 when Ms Challen attacked her husband of 31 years in their former marital home in Claygate, her original trial heard.

She then drove 70 miles to Beachy Head in East Sussex where she admitted to chaplains trying to persuade her away from the cliff edge that she had killed her husband.

In her car was a note which stated: “Richard said he would take me back if I signed a postnuptial agreement.

“I said I would and we both saw solicitors yesterday. I then found out he was seeing someone and sleeping with them and had no intention of taking me back. It was all a game so he could get everything.”

Challen, arriving at the Old Bailey yesterday, had been jailed for life in 2011 for murdering her husband 

When police arrived at the marital home they found the body of Mr Challen with a handwritten note placed by his wife on top reading: “I love you, Sally.”

In a statement read to court, her other son, James, said the brothers had “lost a father” and did not “seek to justify our mother’s actions”, but added she “does not deserve to be punished further”.

Her other son, David, said the family were “overjoyed” – adding it had “brought an end to the suffering we have endured together for the past nine years”.

“Our story has become the landmark case society needs to recognise the true severity of coercive control,” he tweeted.