What is the difference between murder and manslaughter? The supposed dividing line in UK law is intent – or, to translate the Latin mens rea, “guilty mind”. But in the case of the killing of 26-year-old mother Natalie Connolly, that dividing line has been horrifically blurred by wealth, misogyny and a failure to treat domestic violence seriously enough.
John Broadhurst killed Natalie, his girlfriend, at his home two years ago this week, when her then eight-year-old daughter would have been looking forward to Christmas. Natalie sustained no fewer than 40 separate injuries, including serious internal trauma, a fractured eye socket and facial wounds. He poured bleach on her face. Bleeding but still alive, the woman who Broadhurt’s defence team claimed was his “loved one” was left to die at the bottom of this stairs while he went to sleep, and when he eventually called 999 he described Natalie – supposedly his “loved one”, remember – “as dead as a doughnut”.
Broadhurst, a millionaire property developer, claimed she died during “rough sex”. In his trial for murder, the prosecution said that “whatever may have started willingly there is no way that Natalie either consented to or was able to consent to what John Broadhurst did to her after that”. Jurors were told that Broadhurst had “lost it” after finding topless pictures she had sent to another man on social media and wanted to “teach her a lesson”.
It would be difficult to conceive a jury failing to convict Broadhurst for murder after hearing all this evidence but, in an extraordinary decision last week, the CPS decided to downgrade the charge to manslaughter, based on a calculation that the jury may not have convicted because prosecutors could not sufficiently prove intent.
Unsurprisingly, Broadhurst admitted the lesser charge and was this week sentenced to just three years and eight months in prison – and told he would be out on licence in less than two years.
But seriously, would someone who did not intend to kill their “loved one” really inflict 40 separate injuries and not call for an ambulance until it was too late? What part of the BDSM repertoire involves spraying bleach into the face of a partner? Would a person who had not intended to kill their “loved one” be overcome with grief when dialling 999, or would they, callously, describe her as “dead as a doughnut”? The pair had been drinking heavily on the night Natalie died, but the judge, in sentencing remarks, told Broadhurst: “You were capable of taking decisions and making choices. This was grossly irresponsible behaviour by you. You left that vulnerable young woman to die in the saddest and most avoidable of circumstances. You showed blatant disregard for a very drunk and injured woman.”
What seems to have been catastrophic in the handling of this case is the second-guessing by the CPS of the jury that they would not believe Broadhurst intended to kill his girlfriend. This second-guessing tells you everything you need to know about how domestic violence is often disregarded or downgraded in the eyes of the police, courts and wider society. I have no idea how the jury would have reached their verdict, but the fact that the CPS doubted them speaks volumes. They calculated that 12 jurors would believe Broadhurst’s defence, that he accidentally killed Natalie during “rough sex”, and find him not guilty. They thought the jurors would accept the testimony of Broadhurst, a wealthy 40-year-old white man, that she had consented to this violence – effectively blaming her for her own death. It is true, the jury only had Broadhurst’s words that she gave consent, because a dead woman cannot speak to testify otherwise. But her testimony, surely, is there for all to see in her 40 separate horrific wounds and in his slowness in calling for help.
As Harriet Harman, the former solicitor general who is raising this case with the attorney general as an unduly lenient sentence says, a dangerous legal precedent is at risk of being set, and that “any man charged with killing a current or former partner or prostitute could simply say she wanted it”. It is bad enough that the judicial system is seen to be in favour of wealthy white men, even worse that the CPS would not allow a jury to conclude otherwise.
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