Sam Leith

Should we forgive Penelope Jackson?

It shouldn’t seem cruel or controversial, still less misogynistic to think that murder is wrong.

Should we forgive Penelope Jackson?
Penelope Jackson is arrested after stabbing her husband to death (Credit: Somerset Police)
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The most poignant detail, I think, about the story of Penelope Jackson – jailed for 18 years for stabbing her husband to death – was the reaction of her late husband’s younger brother Alan. He said he intended to visit her in prison: 

'I want to say to her, ‘What you’ve gone through I can quite imagine. I know what he was like towards me and my wife. You’re not on your own’.' 

Alan Jackson was estranged from his brother – whom he described as an 'arrogant bully' – and said: 

'No one deserves to die the way he did but I can believe Penny would have been pushed to her limits.'

That has the ring of truth. I absolutely believe coercive control is a real thing; that it can traumatise its victims and wreck their lives and their sense of selfhood. Our moral instinct – if we believe Mrs Jackson’s narrative of a decades-long experience of psychological and physical abuse – may well be that this is a woman who has suffered at the hands of her victim, who has been traumatised by that experience, and who lashed out in a moment of rage or desperation.

Our moral instinct, not to put too fine a point on it, may have been that Mr Jackson reaped what he sowed. And that moral instinct may be right.

We may wonder what threat Penelope Jackson poses to society that she needs to be incarcerated until she’s in the second half of her eighties. We may think that here is a person who deserves not punishment but compassion. We may agree that tabloid reporters’ instincts about her demeanour ('cold', apparently) are nothing to base a sentence on, and that it's fatuous and diminishing to stuff Jackson into one of two templates: icy-hearted murderess or helpless victim of abuse.

But I find myself stubbing my toe on a fixed point. It shouldn’t seem cruel or controversial, still less misogynistic, to take the view that murder is about the gravest crime that it’s possible to commit; and that the law of the land should forgive it only in those who are literally insane or who take another life acting in self-defence while in direct fear of the loss of their own. Neither of those two exemptions – at least as far as the judicial process is capable of meaningfully recognising them – seem to apply in this case. Certainly, the jury that heard all the evidence in the case – as you and I have not -- did not think so.

Mrs Jackson did not as I understand it give evidence that her husband was threatening, still less attempting, to kill her during the incident. The attack was not on the spur of the moment, but the spur of several moments. She first slashed his chest in the bedroom and then fatally stabbed him in the kitchen, some minutes later. She repeatedly refused, when on the phone to 999, to render her dying husband any sort of assistance.

Who knows what was going on with Penelope Jackson psychologically – in that bedroom, in that kitchen, during that 999 call? Was she compos mentis, as she said at the time – deciding, perhaps, that all those years of this belittling, this abuse, this pain, needed to come to an end now whatever it cost her? 

Did she stab him out of cold rage, out of frustration, or out of a sense that her life had become so tiny that there was nothing else she could do? Were the jokes she made – 'I thought I'd get his heart but he hasn’t got one' – the response of a traumatised person trying to get a handle on an unreal situation; or the bravado of a powerless person experiencing a momentary feeling of power? Does she, as she later claimed, remember little of the incident?

This is the sort of instance in which you can see, rather starkly, the limits of what the law can do. It’s a blunt instrument. The criminal law does one thing well: it draws a line between the actions we are and are not allowed to take. But it is far less useful a tool for delving into the motivations and justifications behind those actions – it isn’t a fine scale on which you can weigh complex trauma, accumulated resentment, long-term fear, or unpick the mother-of-pearl layers of misery and desperation that lead one person to an act whose consequences are so unthinkable. And, more than that, it’s not supposed to be. That is to ask too much of it. There is one crime of murder.

Some have pointed out that men kill their spouses in far greater numbers than women do; and that many of them – offering 'nagging' or 'stress' as excuses – get absurdly light sentences. I don’t doubt that is so, and that it is a standing outrage. But if there’s a double standard that needs correcting, is the way to correct it to let women who murder their husbands off just as lightly? It's probably, rather, an argument for judges to take violence against women much more seriously than they do.

It’s possible to recognise that Penelope Jackson may be relieved or even glad that her husband is dead; to recognise that she may have very good reason to be so; to recognise that if there was a monster in that marriage it may well have been the dead man rather than his killer; and to recognise at the same time that a long jail term is the appropriate response of the sublunary law to the actions she took that led to his end.