The Daily Telegraph

Women should not be allowed to get away with murder

By Melanie McDonagh
(Filed: 04/03/2003)
The Daily Telegraph (UK)

It's the inconsistency that's so glaring. The Solicitor General, the rather sweet-faced Harriet Harman, explained to Rachel Sylvester in this paper yesterday that she is revising the laws on domestic violence.

Fair enough: there's a lot of it about. It's the way she's going about it that's remarkable. She's thinking of introducing a plea of self-defence for women who kill their menfolk after years of being beaten up or abused. At the same time, she wants to remove from men the centuries-old defence of provocation - when they murder their wives after finding them, say, in flagrante with another man.

"Men kill their wives, generally speaking, out of anger and women kill their husbands out of fear," Miss Harman explains earnestly. Well, if you put it like that - we've all got lots more sympathy with a fearful killer than an angry one, haven't we?

It's not difficult, though, to see how this might turn out. Men will be more likely to be put away for murder rather than manslaughter for killing their wives, and wives will be more likely to be put away for manslaughter rather than murder for killing their husbands. In one case, a killing that is premeditated for a long time will be treated more lightly; in another, a killing that was not premeditated at all will be treated with the maximum severity.

My own contact with domestic violence, thank God, has been limited to someone who used to live near me, who used to beat his wife like a gong, send her out in a state in which, if she'd been a dog, he'd have been reported to the RSPCA. He himself swaggered around like a fighting cock.

It doesn't take much to bring out my own violent inclinations - like the poet Goethe, I rarely hear of a murder that I can't imagine myself committing - and I used to imagine what I'd do to him if I were his wife.

But although the man was reported repeatedly to the police by the neighbours, nothing ever came of it. The wife always refused to press charges, so the old brute got off, to sin and sin again.

Don't ask me why: it might have been fear of reprisals, it might have been concern for the children (who have turned out pretty much as you might have expected), or it might have been that she actually loved the bastard. All I can say is, my feelings of indignant contempt for the husband were mingled with withering disapprobation for the wife.

But although I could perfectly well imagine myself lashing out at a violent husband, or choking an unfaithful one (improbable scenarios in my own domestic circumstances), the law necessarily has a more detached approach to the human instinct for homicide in the home.

And it strikes me that anything like gender partisanship is wholly out of place here. Tweaking the way the law is interpreted in such a way as to diminish responsibility for one sex or the other could have mortal consequences for some poor soul. Murder is too grave a matter to be an area where Miss Harman can show off how feminist she is.

And murder is, at present, a feminist issue. For campaigning groups such as Justice For Women, it is a matter of obvious truth that women cannot afford the luxury of domestic crimes of passion, since, when it comes down to it, women aren't as strong as men are. (In most cases that is: eight per cent of reported domestic crime - an underestimate, probably, given the stigma involved - concerns female violence against men.)

So a woman who is battered or denigrated over the course of years may resort to what is known as the "slow burn" murder, that is to say, murder that results from the pent-up desperation of sustained abuse and is necessarily usually committed when the man is not in a position to defend himself.

The statistics seem to bear out the gender disparity here. Each year, between 12 and 15 women kill their partners, compared with around 100 men. Yet 40 per cent of the women will be convicted of murder, compared with 25 per cent of the men, chiefly because, in the man's case, it is more likely to be an act of impulsive, rather than considered, violence.

But murder, like romance, is unique to the couple concerned. And it doesn't take much reflection to see that a blanket extenuation of self-defence is quite as likely to lead to miscarriages of justice as the blanket extenuation of provocation.

The most celebrated instance of such a case was Sarah Thornton, who stabbed her husband, Malcolm, to death while he was in a drunken stupor. Her cause was endlessly argued by women's groups, and eventually she got off the murder charge on the grounds that she was suffering from a condition called dissociation.

That didn't prevent her from turning into a celebrity victim after the event, giving interviews to the Independent and publishing her affecting prison correspondence with a male sympathiser. Neither did it stop her case being turned into a sympathetic television docu-drama with the winning title Killing Me Softly.

I felt at the time, and I feel now, that the real victim was the dead man. But there are other notorious cases, like that of the unfortunate Emma Humphreys, a woman who killed her violent pimp after sustained beatings and multiple rapes, where there seems little doubt that self-defence was a valid defence.

So where does this leave the Solicitor General? The obvious moral is that each case of domestic violence has to be judged on its merits. And this crime, more than most, bears out the folly of having blanket minimum sentences for murder, rather than leaving the sentence to the discretion of the judge who has heard all the circumstances of the case.

The other way of cracking down on domestic violence is to put rather more of the onus on the police. If the Solicitor General could persuade them to prosecute violent husbands even without the co-operation of the battered wives, in the many cases where there is an abundance of evidence of guilt, she would do more to remedy the problem of violence against women than any amount of fiddling with the plea of self-defence.

The answer to the problem of violence against women isn't to reward violence by women.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003.