The case of Anthony Williams, convicted of the manslaughter of his wife Ruth and sentenced to just five years in prison, reminded me of the early days of Justice for Women – a feminist law reform campaign I co-founded in 1991.
Two days after domestic abuse victim Sara Thornton lost her appeal against her murder conviction for killing her violent husband, another defendant, Joseph McGrail, walked free from court. McGrail had kicked his wife Marion to death while she lay unconscious but was found guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter on the grounds of ‘provocation’. While listening to McGrail’s tales of woe, the judge sympathised and said, ‘This lady would have tried the patience of a saint.’
That was 30 years ago. Many men resorted to the defence of provocation as a way of complaining that the woman they had killed had nagged them or been unfaithful. And although the defence of provocation was abolished in 2010, similar paltry excuses are still successfully used.
Williams grabbed Ruth and began to strangle her after she told him to ‘Get over’ his concerns about Covid and financial issues. Making a run for the door Williams caught her and killed her on the doorstep as she wrestled with her keys.
Dr Damian Gamble, a psychiatrist at the trial, said Williams had no documented history of suffering from a depressive illness and had ‘no psychiatric defences’ available to him, saying he believed Williams ‘knew what he was doing at the time’.
Judge Paul Thomas described this as a ‘tragic case on several levels’ after hearing evidence that Williams had suffered with depression and anxiety. The judge called him a ‘model father and husband for nearly 50 years’. Williams will be out in a couple of years, during which time well over 200 more women will have died at the hands of a current or former ex-partner.
‘Women who Kill: How the State Criminalises Women We Might Otherwise be Burying’ is a comprehensive new study of how the criminal justice system treats women who kill the men who abuse them. Among the findings is that, of the women who killed as a response to domestic violence and abuse, their sentences were in the region of 14 to 18 years, in contrast to Williams’ five-year sentence.
Ruth Williams joins the more than 1,400 women recorded in the Femicide Census compiled by the feminist campaigning group Counting Dead Women, which covers the period from 2009-2018. Almost half of the men who killed women during this period were known to have a history of violence against women.
I have sat in many such murder trials and heard male defendants claim to have ‘just snapped’ or seen a ‘red mist’ immediately prior to killing. Conversely, I have seen women such as Sally Challen given a life sentence for murder despite having endured decades of torture and abuse at the hands of the deceased.
Take the case of Farieissia (Fri) Martin, convicted of murdering her violent partner in 2015. Following Fri’s conviction, she contacted Justice for Women and instructed a legal team that understood the devastating effects of the psychological, physical and sexual abuse she had endured throughout the relationship. Fri’s original legal team had not sought psychiatric evidence, which would have significantly helped her defence. Fri’s two children were toddlers at the time of her conviction and had been parted from their mother for six years.
A woman is killed by a male partner or ex-partner every three days in the UK, and during the lockdowns this figure has significantly increased. But, despite the bulk of the burden of childcare and domestic duties falling on women, there is no evidence whatsoever of an increase in domestic abuse against men.
Why is it that so many people find it easier to empathise with men like Anthony Williams than they do with a woman who kills after enduring the worst kind of mental and physical torture? According to the Women who Kill research, there are dozens of women currently serving life sentences for murder in England and Wales, despite the fact they killed after being subjected to life-threatening violence. These sexist double standards serve to entrench the idea that women's lives are worth less than men’s.