Did Anthony Williams get lucky?

Ruth Williams

Last Thursday a man who throttled his wife to death last March, shortly after the initial Coronavirus lockdown was imposed, received a five-year jail sentence after a jury accepted his plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than murder. During the trial, a psychologist advanced a theory that his level of control was reduced because of anxiety prompted by the lockdown, which had exacerbated a depression he had been suffering since retiring in 2019 (this theory, or its significance, was disputed by another psychologist who said that he had no history of depressive illness). It was claimed that he had suffered irrational worries about money, but the couple had no mortgage and £150,000 in savings. The incident allegedly started when Ruth Williams told her husband Anthony to “get over it” when she expressed these fears, but he pursued her down the stairs when she escaped from his initial attack and was found on the sofa, a pair of keys in her hand, which to many indicated that Williams was a determined if not premeditated killer and it has been widely suspected that men who murder their wives can easily get away (or get a lenient sentence) by claiming that they ‘snapped’. Harriet Wistrich, the lawyer who got a number of women who killed violent partners released from prison in the 1990s, called it “more proof that the criminal justice system is institutionally misogynist”.

I’m personally not convinced that Anthony Williams’ professed mental illness was genuine — the lockdown was cited, but it was days old at that point and was not stringent; people were allowed to go out for exercise and shopping, and did so quite freely — but I have my doubts as to whether misogyny was anything to do with it. Sometimes defendants get lucky and sometimes it appears that a defendant who had been “under stress” can get sympathy from professionals, the legal system and the jury — if indeed it even reaches a jury. The case that springs to mind here is that of Tanya Clarence who killed her three disabled children in 2014; she was part of a wealthy family with a large, adapted house and had ample professional support, but killed the three children when her husband was away on business by smothering them with a nappy, yet her plea of diminished responsibility was accepted by the Crown and she was sentenced to a hospital order without a jury hearing the case. In this sense Ruth Williams’s killing got a fairer hearing than the Clarence children’s and there is widespread suspicion in the disabled community that the sympathy was based on prejudice against disabled people: a sense that their lives are worth less than others’, that their lives are not worth living, that they are burdensome, that it’s quite understandable that you would not want to be the parent of a disabled child, let alone three.

The law distinguishes murder, which is deliberate or premeditated killing (where the intention is death or serious harm), from manslaughter, which is where a killing is still culpable but to a lesser degree, whether because of mental illness or because conduct was reckless rather than deliberate. For example, punching someone in the face, causing their death, would constitute manslaughter rather than murder, because this type of assault does not normally cause death, while a sustained beating that causes death would be murder, as there was a clear intent to cause serious harm even if this would not always kill. A street murder that involves a gun or knife attracts a longer tariff (minimum amount of prison time in a life sentence) because the killer will have brought the weapon to the scene and will likely hand it to someone else afterwards, both are more likely to cause death or serious harm than anyone’s bare hands and in the case of guns, they are not readily available in the UK and thus reflects a deeper level of criminal involvement. Strangulation is a painful death — we stopped using it to execute criminals in the 1860s by introducing “the drop” — but as some people can do it with their bare hands, it requires a lesser degree of premeditation than the use of a weapon.

In my experience, society is sometimes too tolerant of people who respond to non-physical provocation with violence; when I was in a violent institutional environment as a teenager, the ones who would use violence when someone was rude to or offended them were those who had got away with such behaviour in the past. Those who had not, and who had been on the receiving end of it more often than the other, would harm themselves or damage property (their own or the school’s). A number of years ago I read of a young boy who was assaulted by a man who had caused an accident that damaged the car he and his mother were in; the police refused to press charges as “you can’t give ‘verbal’ and not expect something in return”. This is why I’m sceptical that someone could “just snap” and harm someone else; people are more likely to attack someone who is smaller than them. That said, it was not noted at Anthony Williams’s trial that he had been previously habitually violent. I wonder if he was an undiagnosed autistic; it is common for people with autism to have crises, with extremes of behaviour, when their routines are disrupted especially by major life changes, and given his age he would have left school and gone straight to work at a time when many secure jobs were available, but retirement might have had the same effect as school ending has for many autistic teenagers; this may explain the heightened anxieties about money.

It was also complained about that a domestic violence activist made remarks on Twitter during the trial that there must have been a history of domestic abuse (which is usually the case when a man kills his wife), calling the claim that he had snapped “complete bullshit” and saying she hoped the jury found him guilty of murder. This was then retweeted by Helen Mary Jones, a Welsh Assembly member, and both were summoned to appear before the court for contempt and were reprimanded. Making public remarks or publishing printed material (including in a newspaper) that could prejudice a jury trial is illegal and always has been, for good reason. Newspaper editors have always had to be mindful of it, but it’s only recently that ordinary people have had such reach that what they say may also be prejudicial.

I find the feminist response really quite childish. They sound a lot like children whinging “it’s not faaaaiiiir!”, and the response is one they’ve probably given their children in the face of that complaint about their parenting decisions many a time: sometimes life’s not fair. There is an automatic assumption that Anthony Williams was “let off” because he killed a woman, and let’s face it, women’s lives mean nothing. This just isn’t true; he wasn’t let off, he may have got lucky with the jury but he took advantage of a law that treats unpremeditated homicide differently from premeditated murder, which is quite right and proper even if many men are more able to kill on the spur of the moment than most women because they are stronger. When an actual expert explained the verdict and sentence on his blog, accusations of mansplaining ensued — the standard ad hominem argument that follows a man telling a woman something she does not want to hear, regardless of his level of expertise or hers. They are all leaping to assumptions that the case resembles some they are familiar with, and Anthony Williams represents every male abuser and killer and Ruth represents every female victim, but none of them were in court, as far as I can tell; they rely on newspaper reports and make assumptions based on generalisations (notice also how they casually dismissed Anthony and Ruth Williams’s daughter’s description of her own father’s character). Maybe Anthony Williams lucked out with a sympathetic jury but maybe the law worked as it should and a man who killed when the balance of his mind was disturbed was treated accordingly.

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