Dozens of women could still be in prison for unsafe murder convictions, according to a new report published by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ). The report is the result of a four year research project which examines how the law is failing to provide adequate protection to women who kill their abusers.
The report, carried out in collaboration with campaign organisation Justice for Women, examined 92 cases in which women had been driven to kill their partners, the majority of which are from the past 10 years. Evidence showed that in at least 71 of these cases, the defendant had experienced violence or abuse at the hands of the deceased. Only six of these women were acquitted on self-defence grounds, the rest convicted of either murder (43%), or manslaughter (46%).
‘We have a culture of misogyny, normalised by the widespread availability of violent pornography, which has had an impact on every facet of society – from intimate relationships to institutions, including the criminal justice system’, says director of CWJ Harriet Wistrich. ‘This strongly suggests a failure by the criminal justice system to grasp the gendered nature of violence against women and girls and the impact this can have, and to take a gender-informed, trauma-informed approach to cases involving women who kill in the context of domestic abuse’.
Self-defence is not the only defence available to women who resort to lethal force against their abusers. If a defendant is able to successfully rely on either defence of ‘loss of control’ or ‘diminished responsibility’ in a murder trial, the jury will instead convict for manslaughter, and the presiding judge is no longer obligated to impose a life sentence. In order to avoid giving evidence and facing cross-examination in court, many women instead opt to submit guilty pleas to manslaughter. According to the report, these pleas are ‘troubling, because women’s decisions are based not on the merits of their case, but on a series of systemic disincentives’.
One of the lawyers interviewed described their client’s experience: ‘The prosecution conducted a classic, slightly rough cross-examination and she could no longer sit there and have the truth thrown back in her face as lies, so she stopped. And we never saw her again, she didn’t return to the court. She did not come back to the court building. She refused to leave the prison’.
The report further notes that women who have experienced trauma may suffer problems with memory and lack the ability to recall events in a logical or chronological order. Arguing a defence can therefore become more challenging, with women ‘perceived as being inconsistent and, therefore, possibly lying’.
In 71% of cases examined, the defendant used a knife to stab the deceased. Use of a weapon can have knock-on effects for women at the sentencing stage of criminal proceedings, as it is considered an aggravating factor which can lead to tougher sentences. The report notes that women – typically of smaller stature than their male partners – are more likely to resort to use of a weapon, whereas for men, strangulation with bare hands is the second most common form of femicide.
Researchers noted that homicide is a last resort, and in part a product of the failure of criminal justice agencies to combat domestic abuse and coercive control in their nascent stages. According to the report, poor police responses to reports of domestic violence are ‘common experiences of many women’. Through analysis of past Domestic Homicide Reviews, researchers concluded that police have prematurely dropped charges, on five occasions deciding to take ‘no further action’ after being called to incidents of serious assault.
The report suggests that no lessons are being learnt from past mistakes, with the same findings published in successive IOPC (Independent Office for Police Conduct) reports. ‘The responses to domestic violence are getting better, but there are often system failings’, said one journalist interviewed. ‘The murder of X, where she had called the police nine times that day after her estranged husband breached his restraining order and was reportedly in her garden and the police never responded – and then he killed her. I have reported so many cases where there has been some kind of failing to protect women ‘.