Sally Challen killed her husband, Richard, with a hammer in 2010. She was convicted of murder and given a life sentence but on appeal the conviction was replaced with one for manslaughter. A psychiatric report had concluded Challen was suffering from an 'adjustment disorder'. The judge, Mr Justice Edis, said the killing came after 'years of controlling, isolating and humiliating conduct' with the added provocation of her husband's 'serial multiple infidelity'.
So far, so normal. Since 2010 when the law on murder was reframed so that the defence of provocation was replaced with a new defence of 'loss of control' caused in response to 'words or conduct which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged', the law on murder has been more favourable to the likes of Challen and downtrodden women generally. (It’s curious, mind you, that this particular change in the law explicitly excluded infidelity as grounds for killing your spouse but the appeal judges seemed in this case to take the late Mr Challen’s persistent adultery into account as a reason why his wife might have killed him with a hammer.)
Anyway, when Challen’s conviction was changed she was still subject to the rule that people who kill someone shouldn’t benefit from their estate, a rule which seems right on both pragmatic and moral grounds. But now, Judge Paul Matthews has ruled that she can inherit the estate, which was originally in the names of both herself and her husband. So the marital property goes to her, not her sons. Judge Matthews took care to say that: 'I emphasise that the facts of this terrible case are so extraordinary, with such a fatal combination of conditions and events, that I would not expect them easily to be replicated in any other.'
Really? Well, not easily, perhaps. Cases of sorely tried wives killing their husbands are rare but not unique. And if put-upon women (or men) in a fraught relationship feel that they may escape a murder charge and also benefit from the estate of the dead, it may add another strand to the complex web of motivations that animate people in these horrible circumstances.
The victims in these cases are dead and cannot speak for themselves. So the rest of us should reiterate the simple principle that you should not profit from your crimes, notably homicide, including those cases where the perpetrator is a more sympathetic figure than the victim.