In 2011 Sally Challen was jailed for life for murdering her husband, Richard Challen, at his home (and formerly their marital home) in Claygate, Surrey (which is down the road from where I live). She killed him by attacking him with a hammer from behind; she then drove to a nearby multi-storey car park intending to jump from the roof but when she found it closed, drove to Beachy Head in Sussex, a notorious suicide spot, but was talked down and then arrested. She is now appealing her conviction with the help of the same group of lawyers and feminist campaigners that have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to get a number of other women out of jail having killed abusive or violent husbands from the early 1990s. Yet the description of the murder does not fit the pattern of the sort of killing which would merit a defence of diminished responsibility or provocation, even cumulative provocation. It sounds like a straightforward premeditated murder.
There is no doubt that Richard Challen was abusive to Sally and that the abuse was characterised by “coercive control”, i.e. unreasonably dictating what a partner (usually a wife or girlfriend) might wear, whom the might talk to, etc., and persistently checking on them or spying on them. Their sons say that he used prostitutes, imposed rules on her such that she have no friends of her own or talk to others in his presence, and criticised her constantly about her weight and appearance. After Sally Challen left her husband in November 2009, her sons tried to persuade her not to have anything more to do with their father but she returned, armed with a hammer, the following August, supposedly to try to patch things up. Richard planned to try to get her to agree to some conditions, such as reducing her rights to their home, that she not interrupt him or talk to other people when they were in restaurants. As the home was empty, he sent her to a nearby shop to get food; on return, suspecting an ulterior motive, she picked up his phone and dialled the last number on his phone, which was answered by a woman. She then cooked food for him, and as he sat with his back to her to eat it, she attacked him several times with the hammer, killing him.
Two important things to notice here: one is that she was living apart from her husband, and was not forced to go back to the house, and the other is that she took a hammer, which may have meant she anticipated violence from him or maybe that she intended to use it herself. Going equipped with an implement such as a hammer in public with no intention to use it other than as a weapon is a crime in itself. In previous cases involving abused wives, the woman killed the husband after a provocation that seemed trivial in itself (e.g. casually informing her that he had another woman, as with Emma Humphreys) but not so in the context of years of abuse, or was still in the relationship and still feared violence or was actively traumatised when she carried out the killing; in others, the killing took place during an argument in which the husband threatened the wife (e.g. that of Donna Tinker in 2000). None of these things were the case here. She had been away from him for several months, could have stayed away, was under no threat, and attacked him from behind without provocation. She was angry with him, but there is such a thing as a proportional reaction and learning of someone’s infidelity stopped being a defence for murder in 2008 after campaigns from the same feminists who want to see Sally Challen released. They called it the “nagging and shagging defence”.
It’s good that the law was changed to reflect the realities of living with a persistently violent partner and the psychological effects of it, but the victim having been abusive is not a defence on its own. Whether or not Richard Challen was a nice guy, his wife had no right to kill him and, in the absence of a strong evidence of mental illness, premeditation still makes a killing a murder (though of course, those rules can be bent too, as in the Tania Clarence triple murder case). Basically, “he was scum” never was, and is not, a defence for murder and it should not become one.
Image source: Motmit, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.
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