Should These Women Be In Prison For Killing Their Alleged Abusers?

Emma-Jayne Magson was sentenced to life in prison after stabbing her allegedly abusive boyfriend during a fight. She is now appealing her murder conviction.

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Nov 23 2018, 10:41am

Emma-Jayne Magson. Photo courtesy of subject

The evening of 26 March, 2016 began in an ordinary way for Emma-Jayne Magson and her boyfriend, James Knight. The pair, then 23 and 26 respectively, went out with friends in Leicester, UK and took a cab home together. Within hours one would be dead, and the other facing life in prison.

Returning from their night out, Magson and Knight began arguing. Conflict was not unusual in their relationship: Knight was allegedly controlling, jealous, and physically aggressive towards Magson. The row became increasingly ferocious, and Magson grabbed a knife and stabbed Knight in the heart. He died in the early hours of March 27. Magson has no recollection of the killing. Eight months later, Magson sat alone in court without an intermediary and did not give evidence. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. “She was a spectator rather than a participant in her own trial,” says Louise Bullivant, who is now Magson’s solicitor.

Justice for Women, a feminist organization that advocates on behalf of women who have fought back or killed violent men, are campaigning against the murder conviction. Yesterday, three Court of Appeal judges granted an application from Magson's lawyers to appeal her conviction. It's a huge step forward for her legal team, and one that Bullivant welcomed.

“It’s an acknowledgement that we’re dealing with an applicant who’s vulnerable, it is also an acknowledgement that we have been able to present sufficient fresh evidence to persuade them that we have a point and that point should be argued before a full court in due course,” she says. A hearing is expected to take place in the coming months, with a date yet to be set.


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No medical or psychiatric evidence was put before the jury during Magson’s initial trial, despite the defense concluding that she suffering from an emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD, also known as borderline personality disorder). The jury, says Bullivant, was also not made aware of the full extent of the abuse Knight had allegedly subjected her to. They also didn’t know about the violence she had been exposed to as a child, or that Magson suffered a miscarriage a week before the killing.

Magson was convicted on November 4, 2016 and given a life sentence with a minimum of 17 years. Joanne Smith, Magson’s mother—who is caring for her four-year-old daughter while she serves the term—watched in disbelief.

“Even though I know Emma killed James, she did not murder him,” Smith tells me. “She never meant to do it… I don’t get it. You hear about people going out and stabbing someone 13 times and getting manslaughter. Even in the sentencing the judge said, ‘I don’t believe you meant to kill him.’ He said Emma’s behaviour was strange, she was totally detached.”

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Sally and Richard Challen. Photo courtesy of David Challen

The emergence of fresh psychiatric and psychological evidence that was not explored at the original trial could now challenge Magson’s conviction. Her legal team inform me that she has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a complex autism spectrum disorder. This diagnosis, along with that of EUPD, gives her legal team the opportunity to argue a partial medical defense of diminished responsibility. If Magson’s appeal is successful, her conviction might be found to be unsafe, and a retrial ordered. The Crown Prosecution Service might then consider the possibility of a plea to a lesser offense of manslaughter.

History demonstrates that the situation can go one of two ways. Stacey Hyde, whose case was also handled by Justice for Women, was cleared of murder and walked free in 2015 after five years in prison. She had been convicted at age 18 of the murder of her friend’s boyfriend when she stabbed him as he attacked them both. The jury at her retrial accepted that she killed Vincent Francis in self-defense. But just last month, Wendy Graham had her appeal against the murder conviction and life sentence she received in 2008 for killing her allegedly abusive boyfriend rejected by Scottish judges. This came despite new evidence that suggested she was suffering from a psychological disorder at the time of the killing.

The case of Sally Challen, 64, also shows how media coverage can demonize women who snap after years of sustained abuse. Challen killed her husband of 31 years, Richard, on August 14, 2010 after enduring decades of alleged abuse. She hit Richard over the head with a hammer as he ate breakfast at their home in Surrey before wrapping his body in old curtains. She placed a handwritten note on top that read: “I love you, Sally.” She then drove 70 miles to the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, called her cousin to confess, and made her way to the edge. Police spent over three hours talking her out of jumping.

Challen was convicted of murder in June 2011 and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 22 years, reduced to 18 at appeal. Media reports painted her as a jealous and vengeful wife, but reports failed to mention the extreme degree of the psychological abuse she suffered. Their son David Challen, 31, who is campaigning on behalf of his mother alongside Justice for Women, describes how his father would persistently gaslight her and question her sanity when she suspected he was being unfaithful. “‘You’re going mad, Sally, you’re making it all up,’” David says of the things his father would say to his mother. “It was almost like a mantra he would say to her.”

Challen was the victim of what we now know to be coercive control, which became a crime in England and Wales in December 2015. In a landmark case, she has been granted permission to appeal her murder conviction on the grounds of new psychiatric evidence of a personality disorder and a report showing she suffered coercive control. She will appear in court for her appeal hearing on February 27 28, 2019. If the new evidence is accepted as fresh information, her conviction could be quashed. This could mean an entirely new murder retrial, or Challen could be convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries a shorter sentence and raises the possibility that she might be released for time served.

The case has come at a critical time for victims of coercive control. The number of offenses of controlling or coercive behaviour recorded in the UK doubled to 9,053 in 2017/18 from the 4,246 the previous year. Yet academic research has revealed ongoing issues—such as poor identification of the patterns of abuse, limited resources, inadequate police training and budget cuts—mean opportunities to prosecute are still being missed. “You have to resource swift changes in legislation if you want them to work,” explains Dr. Kelly Johnson, an expert in coercive control at Durham University. “It requires political and financial will to see the success that it could be. That is vital to capture and respond to the harm women experience on a daily basis in abusive relationships.”

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Challen's lawyer Harriet Wistrich believes her case could have an enormous impact on how coercive control is viewed by the legal system. “A law that’s there to protect women that isn’t widely used at the moment,” she explains.

David hopes the case impact the lives of other people suffering domestic abuse and coercive control. “We aren’t seeking to justify how our father has died,” he says. “What we’re hoping to recognize is my mother’s abuse. In recognizing her abuse, you recognize it is a factor in our father’s death. We are only seeking for the truth to come out… it’s about correcting the wrongs of the justice system because it’s reflecting on so many more cases that happen.”