• Mon. Mar 8th, 2021

Lenient sentences for domestic abuse killings send a dangerous message

ByDNP

Feb 23, 2021

The case has left MPs and domestic abuse campaigners like myself alarmed (Picture: Wales News Service)

When I read last week that pensioner Anthony Williams was sentenced to just five years in prison for the manslaughter of his wife Ruth I was left in disbelief.

How could it be deemed acceptable that a man intent on harming his wife will be allowed to walk free after what will realistically amount to a couple of years?

Williams told police that he had found it ‘really, really hard’ just five days into the UK lockdown and felt ‘depressed’. When his wife of 46 years Ruth told him to ‘get over it’ Williams said he ‘literally choked the living daylights’ out of her as she tried to unlock the front door to escape on 28 March last year. 

Judge Paul Thomas said it was a ‘tragic case on several levels’, but in his view Williams’ mental state was ‘severely affected at the time’ and that the case showed ‘no history of domestic abuse’.

Dr Alison Witts, a psychiatrist, told the jury Williams’ anxiety and depressive illness were heightened by the coronavirus measures and impaired his ability to exercise self-control, while psychologist Dr Damian Gamble said that Williams had no documented history of suffering a depressive illness and had ‘no psychiatric defences’ available to him, saying he believed Williams ‘knew what he was doing at the time’.

The case has left MPs and domestic abuse campaigners like myself alarmed. 

In response, MP Harriet Harman tweeted that she would write to ask the Attorney General Suella Braverman to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as an ‘unduly lenient’ sentence while fellow Labour MP Jess Philips said she would join her. 

I have found the sentence particularly worrying because it seems to use lockdown as a reason to justify his actions. And considering domestic violence services such as Welsh Women’s Aid have reported an increase in demand during the pandemic, I believe this result sets a dangerous precedent. 

This case has left me reflecting upon my own traumatic memories of the trial my mother Sally Challen faced. 

In 2011 I sat and witnessed a judge deliver her a life sentence for the murder of my father. The trial failed to not only properly explore the decades of abuse she suffered by him but also failed to adequately examine her mental condition at the time. 

In 2019 my mother’s murder conviction was quashed in a landmark appeal (Picture: Yui Mok/PA)

In 2019 my mother’s murder conviction was quashed in a landmark appeal. The abuse she endured and multiple mental disorders were finally recognised and later that year my mother’s guilty plea to manslaughter was accepted. She was sentenced to 14 years and freed on time served. 

Why did a woman with multiple mental disorders who kills her abuser receive a sentence almost three times longer than that of a man with no history of suffering a depressive illness?

It seems Williams killed his wife for no reason other than the often repeated excuse, ‘I just snapped’. The pressures of lockdown should not mean you get a free pass to kill your spouse. 

Women who kill have long been treated differently to men, an argument that is supported by a groundbreaking new four year research report by the Centre for Women’s Justice and Justice for Women. It finds that women who killed as a response to domestic violence and abuse receive sentences for manslaughter in the region of 14 to 18 years, in sharp contrast to Williams’ five year sentence.

The disparity in manslaughter sentencing between men and women is led by the judge’s discretion, which could be anything from life imprisonment to a non-custodial sentence. All too regularly do charities and campaigners like myself highlight and challenge the lack of understanding about the nature of domestic abuse by judges, often exemplified in their summing up. 

Alexander Heavens, who bent his girlfriend’s fingers back and punched her in the face, was spared jail in 2019 and told by the judge to put it behind him and that ‘there are lots more fishes in the sea.’ Such comments convey a lack of understanding of domestic abuse and belittles the experiences of the victim.

Further inequality in sentencing is created by use of weapons that are deemed an aggravating factor in determining sentences. 

Women, who are usually physically smaller than their male partners, are more likely to use a weapon rather than their bare hands when responding to an abusive partner. 

In 79% of the cases included in the four year research, women had used a weapon to kill their partner. In contrast, the second most common form of femicide is strangulation, a method of killing almost entirely absent when women kill their partners.

The evidence in this report points to the fact that, when it comes to domestic violence, men and women are not treated equally in the eyes of the law. Williams by his own admission said that he ‘choked the living daylights’ out of his wife Ruth. Were Ruth to have defended herself, with a weapon, I feel the judge may have taken a very different view of this distressing event.

That an understanding of men’s violence against women in this case has also been judged to have been rooted in the depression and anxiety, exacerbated by lockdown, should send alarm bells ringing. 

Coronavirus has limited women’s access to support but does not create violent men. Restrictions may appear as triggers, but they can as easily provide cover for excuses and I fear that we may see this defence come up again.

Domestic abuse charities such as Refuge who run the National Domestic Abuse Helpline reported calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual during the first three months of lockdown have reported a surge in calls to helplines and online services since the first lockdown conditions were imposed. 

I now worry that victims who have been walking on eggshells around their abusers will now look to Williams’ sentence and believe that their lives are today more dispensable than ever.

The Anthony Williams case has highlighted the need for sentencing guidelines to be reviewed against the clear disparity when compared with women who kill

Part of the campaigning work I’ve been doing since the release of my mother has been to not only help raise awareness of domestic abuse in all its forms, and in turn educate the public who might become part of the juries in these cases, but also to confront the media that report them. Time and again the media often focuses on the perceived faults of the women killed by men, and never on the real issue – male violence. 

There is a consistent need across the judiciary to remove inequality and provide a criminal justice system that delivers safe convictions and sentences that keep the public protected. 

The Anthony Williams case has highlighted the need for sentencing guidelines to be reviewed against the clear disparity when compared with women who kill.

Fundamentally, this sentencing has laid bare that a man with ‘no psychiatric defences’ can violently kill his wife and walk back into society in what may be just two and a half years, which I believe should be a serious concern for everybody.



Domestic violence helpline

If you are in immediate danger call 999. If you cannot talk, dial 55 and the operator will respond.

For emotional support, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. Alternatively, you can email Women’s Aid on [email protected]

For free and confidential advice and support for women in London affected by abuse, you can call Solace on 0808 802 5565 or email [email protected]

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing angela.pearso[email protected].

Share your views in the comments below.


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