In the 12 months since the first lockdown, at least 112 women in the UK have been killed by men. Killers such as Anthony Williams are often treated sympathetically by the courts because the men claim to have been adversely affected by the pandemic, meaning that judges and jurors go soft on them in the same way they take it easy on men who say they only killed their partners because she nagged or cheated. Many of these men who commit fatal acts of violence have put women through hell for years, if not decades, before killing.
But as the survivors of domestic abuse know, a woman unlucky enough to be trapped with an abusive man will often face the worst of it if she manages to escape. These men typically stalk and harass the women who have the courage to leave, continuing their sadistic punishment and control by pursuing their victim.
Those who speak for the murdered women have long argued that such homicides are the easiest to predict. Take the insightful book by criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith that lays out the pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour consistently adopted by abusive men. ‘These men collect victims. They are repeat offenders and don’t necessarily start off using extreme violence,’ says Monckton-Smith. ‘They escalate, which is why we need to warn women about them.’
Feminist campaigners against domestic abuse have long been pressuring the Home and Justice Secretaries to consider creating a register for stalkers and serial abusers of women. This would result in there being a statutory duty forcing serial offenders to be put on a national register and closely monitored. This measure would make much more sense than increased CCTV or streetlights as a means of protecting women from violent men.
Serial domestic abusers and stalkers should be included on the same database as sex offenders and terrorists. When the Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the Commons after Easter, it is thought that several ministers will back the scheme. At a time when women’s confidence in the police is at rock bottom, it would be a boost for women that police forces and social services could share information about men convicted of offences such as harassment, stalking and coercive control.
Laura Richards is a former violence adviser to the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers and she has been pushing for such a database for 20 years.
‘As a practitioner and advocate who has worked on thousands of cases and also worked with families bereaved due to serial violent men who killed their loved ones, I never stopped believing that I needed to make this happen,’ says Richards.
She is right. Serial domestic abusers need to be made accountable for their behaviour, and the public has a right to know about their criminal history of violence against women. Anyone caught shoplifting in Waitrose is banned from the store for 12 months for the first offence and repeat offenders for life. Surely women are worth more than consumer goods? Why should violent offenders be allowed to move seamlessly from one victim to another?
There is solid evidence to show that serial abusers of women are extremely dangerous and often go on to rape and kill. But there is now an opportunity to prevent these serious assaults. All it takes is for people to listen to women when they report abuse, and to identify, track and manage these violent men.
‘Perpetrators do not wake up one day and suddenly kill. These are not isolated incidents. This is patterned behaviour and we have an opportunity to prevent these “murders in slow motion”,’ says Richards.
Since campaigning to end male violence I have come across thousands of stories of women being beaten, raped or killed by men who were known to be serial offenders, and yet more often than not, the victims had no idea of the perpetrators’ past. Take the case of Keith Ward who, in 1983 killed his partner, Julie Stead. She had complained many times to the police about him but they failed to act. At trial, Ward pleaded provocation and was sentenced to three years in prison. In 1990 Ward lined up his next victim, Valerie Middleton, whom he soon began to abuse. While on weekend release from a two-year sentence for a previous attack on Middleton, he killed her. This time he was convicted of murder. But some years later, via a prison probation pen pal scheme, he set up his third victim, Angie*. After forming a ‘romantic relationship’ through letter writing and subsequent face-to-face visits, Angie moved home to be close to the prison to await his release. It was only when a member of my feminist group read about this ‘love behind bars’ story in a cheap supermarket magazine that we were able to track down Angie and warn her off Ward. She had no idea that he had killed two women because no-one had told her. It would appear that little has changed.
Some civil liberty groups have made noises about how such a register could be an invasion of privacy. But men who serially abuse women should forfeit their right to privacy. Women’s lives depend on it.