Last night, a BBC Two documentary aired detailing the case of Sally Challen, a woman whose horrifying story has had an unprecedented impact on the way we perceive domestic abuse - specifically when it comes to coercive control.
In June 2011 Sally Challen, a 65-year-old mother of two from Claygate in Surrey was convicted for the murder of her husband. She was ordered to serve a minimum of 22 years in prison which was laterreduced by 4 yearsto 18 on appeal.
In the years that have passed since, her lawyer, Harriet Wistrich, and her sons David Challen and James Challen, have fought to have her conviction overturned. In February this year, they succeeded and secured a retrial for her. By June 2019, prosecutors had accepted Sally's plea to manslaughter - and she was sentenced to 9 years and 4 months, allowing her to walk free because of the time she had already served.
A lot has changed since the 2010 summer morning, when Sally killed her husband at home. Most importantly for her, coercive control – a particularly pernicious form of emotional abuse – is now recognised as a crime (and has been since 2015) which can carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
During Sally’s appeal hearing, the court heard evidence of the emotional abuse she and her sons say she suffered during decades of her marriage which, ultimately, led to her killing her husband.
The change in law when it comes to domestic violence and abuse has completely changed the way that Challen’s case can be argued. When we speak about ‘domestic’ crimes we so often fall back on the sort of stereotypes we grew up watching on EastEnders - black eyes borne out of drunken arguments – and not the less visible, subtle and insidious manipulation that we now know as coercive control which can and does take place in homes all over this country.
Coercive or controlling behaviour is psychologically and emotionally abusive behaviour. The scars aren’t always visible but the damage done runs deep. It’s anything from consistent patterns of bullying and degradation from a partner to them stalking your movements, controlling who you see or trying to restricting your finances.
In light of this, Sally’s lawyers were able to put fresh evidence before a court which they said demonstrates that Richard subjected her to gaslighting, lied about having affairs with other women and raped her as punishment after she kissed one of his friends on the cheek.
One day, Sally snapped. As Richard ate breakfast she had made for him, Sally hit him 20 times with a hammer. She then wrapped him in old curtains, did the dishes, wrote a note saying ‘I love you, Sally’, placed it on his body, waited until the next day and drove to Beachy Head, intending to end her life.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this case and what it has done for our understanding of what domestic abuse looks like. The appeal verdict is also testament to what a change in the law can actually mean for people in real terms.
Sally’s retrial came at a time when domestic abuse was on the rise, and still is. Earlier this year, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced an extra £15m worth of funding for support services for domestic violence victims as it was revealed that data shows there was a 63% increase in domestic abuse offences between 2011 and 2018.
That means that in the year up to March 2011 there were 48,422 domestic abuse offences recorded by the Metropolitan Police but in the year up to March 2018, there were 78, 814. Over the country as a whole, last year a total of 2 million adults aged 16 to 59 experienced domestic abuse (1.3 million women and 695,000 men).
And, sadly, it’s not unusual for a domestic abuse case to end in a fatality. One woman dies as a result of this issue every three days.
You have to wonder whether part of the interest in Challen’s case was the fact that she – a woman – murdered her husband – a man. Statistically, she was an anomaly and so we know a lot more about her and the gory details of what occurred when she killed her husband than we do about the countless women who die at the hands of their partners.
The week her retrial was granted, headlines reporting her appeal were still sensationalist.
As the news broke, the BBC published an article with the headline ‘Sally Challen: Hammer killer wife to be retried’. After feminist campaigners Level Up and their supporters got involved, the headline was changed to ‘Sally Challen murder conviction quashed over husband’s death’.
And with last night's documentary, a conversation about emotional abuse and controlling behaviour is sure to be ignited. Women may feel more confident in coming forward about the abuse they have experienced. Perhaps we will rethink our ideas about what is and isn’t abuse and, hopefully, our understanding of what really goes on behind closed doors, in all its complexity, inside homes everywhere will improve.
And then, we might be better equipped to help those who find themselves imprisoned in their own homes.