The Times

Friday November 8th, 2002

Women should not get away with murder

by Dea Birkett
The Times

A battle of the sexes is being fought and won in our courts.

Josephine Smith claimed her husband, Brian, beat her repeatedly and forced her to watch porn. So, ten years ago, she shot him in his sleep. This week the Court of Appeal quashed her murder conviction, reducing it to manslaughter. Her lawyers said she had suffered ³cumulative provocation², though the killing was clearly premeditated; the gun had been taken from her parents’ house a week earlier.

Around 70 women are in jail for killing their male partners; one by one, their murder convictions are being quashed. In 1989, moments after returning from the pub, Sara Thornton killed her alcoholic husband, Malcolm, as he lay in a drunken stupor; she was freed six years later. In 1989 Kiranjit Ahluwalia poured petrol over her abusive husband while he slept and set him alight; in 1992 she was released on appeal. In 1985 Emma Humphreys stabbed her boyfriend, Trevor Armitage; ten years later she, too, was freed. All had their convictions cut from murder to manslaughter.

A gaggle of feminist and legal groups have welcomed these women walking free. ³The judiciary are finally accepting the argument that domestic violence and abuse are sufficient grounds for provocation,² declares Justice for Women. Put in plain language, this statement is terrifying: if your boyfriend gives you bruises, it¹s understandable if you knife him in the heart. Soon, women will be able to get away with murder. It cannot be right that our legal system is being used as a weapon in the war between the sexes.

Until Ahluwalia¹s 1992 appeal, a plea of provocation had to prove ³sudden and temporary loss of self-control². But the cases of women who have killed abusive husbands has dangerously shifted this definition. Humphreys¹s case was the first to cite ³cumulative provocation² — that is, a long-term pattern of abuse that somehow ³provokes² a brutal killing, without there necessarily being any immediate cause. Successfully arguing such provocation reduces a murder charge to manslaughter, for which the minimum sentence is community service.

But why should provocation be viewed differently for women in abusive relationships than anyone else in any other situation? Their supporters have to argue that, in the case of the battered wife, there are no other options. Seeking help or going to the police is pointless and impossible. They are too ashamed to reveal the true state of their marriage, and subject to threats if they do. It¹s even stated, with no sense of irony, that ³leaving is actually the most dangerous thing a woman can do².

Justice for Women argues that courts have to take into account ³the particular experiences of women subjected to male violence². And here lies the real issue. For behind all these arguments is the underlying assumption that it isn’t a single woman in the dock, but womankind that is on trial. And her victim is not a human being, with his own flawed and fallible life, but a representative of the male race.

But the courts are not the place to redress centuries of women¹s oppression. These murdered men, however unsavoury, should not be scapegoats for society¹s inequalities. If this were the purpose of our legal system, any Muslim killing any Christian would be committing mere manslaughter because of the atrocities of the Crusades. A black burglar could be defended on the basis that he was redressing the sins of slavery. Such arguments would be, rightly, laughed out of court. Each of these individuals is committing a crime against a person.

Our legal system is based on the belief that an individual is responsible for his or her own actions. Women should be no exception; to see an accused woman merely as a representative of The Oppressed Sex is as insulting to her as it is unjust to her victim. Domestic violence cannot be excused. But neither is it an excuse for murder.

The author is a writer and broadcaster.

Copyright 2002, Times Newspapers Ltd.