On a recent appeal

Today the Court of Criminal Appeal roused itself from its usual apathy, and allowed a widow’s appeal against conviction for the brutal murder of her husband, from whom she was separated at the time, using a hammer which she brought with her.

She had visited him, seemingly with a view to some sort of reconciliation, but had then violently attacked him, hitting him twenty times as he was eating lunch.

It seems that she was incensed that he was seeing someone else and later told police, “If I can’t have him, no one can”. When asked why she did it at trial, she said that she didn’t know.

At the trial, she was sentenced to 22 years in prison, though on appeal in 2011, this was reduced to 18 years.

The case has been the subject of an aggressive feminist campaign to rehabilitate her, at her late husband’s expense. He has been branded abusive and controlling.

It is now claimed that 65 y.o. Mrs Challen – who was dubbed “the hammer killer wife” – was herself the victim of a novel syndrome called “coercive control”, that only acquired legal status in 2015, four years after Challen’s conviction.

Various experts gave evidence including, it seems, a forensic psychiatrist. Challen is to be retried for murder and there are reporting restrictions in place.

From press reports, it appears that what swung the appeal, despite the campaigners swinging from the rafters (100 people in court, apparently), was a medical opinion that Challen had two mental disorders when she killed her husband.

This opinion – which post-dates the trial – was thought to open up the possibility of a defence not advanced at the trial.

Now, as yet, the appeal court’s full reasons have not entered the public domain. It seems that the original defence team did advance a defence based on the fact that she was depressed, arguing diminished responsibility. It is unclear what the appeal court was told about her diagnosis, evidently made with the benefit of hindsight.

In civil cases, you cannot reopen a case based on fresh evidence, when such evidence could reasonably have been obtained at the time of the original hearing.

No doubt, all will be explained at the retrial. All we can glean is that the appeal court seemingly decided to go with a narrower argument based on a medical opinion, and seemingly not on the more ambitious and fashionable theory of “coercive control”, popularised by a former American social worker named Evan Stark.

Stark, who was brought in from the US to give evidence, used to run a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. In 2007, he wrote an influential book, arguing that physical abuse was only one part of domestic abuse.

Stark was, it seems, rebooting the 1970s obsession with cults and mind control in the domestic violence sphere, and suggesting that abusive relationships involve a micro-kind of mind control, in which the abused partner is effectively a domestic hostage of one.

Of course, this may be true, in what could be seen as fairly extreme cases. The trouble is that concepts such as “economic abuse” or “psychological abuse” are fairly elastic, and open to a variety of definitions, in practice.

There are clearly contested narratives about the real state of Challen’s 31-year marriage, its breakdown, and the true cause of her husband’s violent death. They will explored in the retrial.

Whilst UK domestic campaigners are exulting, some in Canada take a more cautious view. Do you normally blame homicide victims for their deaths? Isn’t this victim-blaming?

If a man were to defend a charge of murdering his wife arguing that it was because she was unfaithful, feminists would be outraged.

Yet some domestic violence activists seek to advance another form of special pleading, namely, that a woman who kills her “abusive and controlling” partner is the victim, and so (implicitly) her partner deserved what happened.

Morally, this is difficult to justify. No matter how horrible a person you are, does that really entitle someone else to kill you, except in self-defence?

A “coercive control” defence to murder sounds difficult to mount, therefore.

In Challen’s retrial, the jury will have to examine the new medical evidence and legal arguments, and decide on the merits of her reformulated defence. We will have to wait and see what the outcome will be.

And no doubt the feminist debate will continue.