Sally Challen killed her husband after allegedly suffering decades of abuse. Now, she’s had her murder conviction overturned – and the response suggests that more and more people now understand the devastating effects of coercive control.
It’s easy to feel disheartened, even desperate, when you think about domestic abuse in this country. A report released earlier this week showed that there was a 63% increase in domestic abuse offences in London between 2011 and 2018, with the Metropolitan Police recording almost 79,000 cases last year alone. In the year ending March 2018, 239 women were killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales, and an estimated 2 million adults – 1.3 million of whom were women – experienced domestic abuse. Council funding for women’s refuges in England, Scotland and Wales has been cut by around £7 million since 2010, with dozens of shelters having to close their doors entirely.
But occasionally, something happens that lets you hold onto a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe – maybe – things might be shifting. On the last day of February, it was announced that Georgina “Sally” Challen, the Surrey woman serving an 18-year sentence for killing her husband in 2010, has had her murder conviction overturned. She will now face a retrial.
Challen has never denied that she attacked Richard – her husband of 31 years, who she met when she was just 15 – with a hammer as he sat at their kitchen table in 2010. But her original trial took place in 2011, four years before “coercive and controlling behaviour” was made a criminal offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015. At that trial, Challen was depicted as a possessive wife who murdered her husband in a fit of rage after becoming suspicious that he was having an affair.
But according to Challen’s family and friends – as well as the couple’s neighbours, Richard’s family, and his oldest friend – Richard had subjected her to serious psychological, emotional and psychological abuse for decades. The criminalisation of coercive control, they argue, completely changes the legal context of her case.
Friends of the Challens recall that Richard would criticise Sally’s intelligence and insult her appearance in public, grinding her confidence down into dust. Her sons David (pictured top) and James, who have campaigned for her to be released from prison, say that he gaslit her when she questioned him about his trips to brothels and multiple affairs, accusing her of going mad or drinking too much.
When they reunited after a year-long separation, David says that Richard drew up a post-nuptial agreement that denied her full financial entitlement in the divorce and banned her from smoking, interrupting him or speaking to strangers. Challen has also told her lawyer, Harriet Wistrich – a barrister who specialises in domestic abuse cases, and prevented the “black cab rapist” John Worboys from leaving prison last year – that Richard was both physically and sexually violent on occasions throughout their relationship.
“He bullied and humiliated her, isolated her from her friends and family, controlled who she could socialise with, controlled her money, restricted her movement and created a culture of fear and dependency,” the Challen brothers have said.
“Our mother’s actions were not led by the emotions of jealousy nor rage, but stemmed from the lifelong campaign of fear and psychological abuse waged by our father through his coercive, controlling behaviour.”
At Challen’s first trial in 2011, her lawyers did not attempt to convince the jury of Richard’s abusive behaviour. Her legal team seem to have been concerned that painting Richard in a negative light would have backfired; David has described their attitude as “don’t speak ill of the dead”. When Judge Christopher Critchlow sentenced Challen to life imprisonment (later reduced to 18 years on appeal), he denounced her as a woman who had been “eaten up with jealousy” at Richard’s platonic “friendships” with other women.
But it looks as though maybe – maybe – things are changing. Some of the coverage of Challen’s appeal and the news of her retrial has been glaringly and predictably salacious, with both BBC News and The Mirror referring to her in headlines as “hammer killer wife”. But lots of it has been sensitive and empathetic. The Daily Mail – not generally renowned for its delicate handling of such cases – even published a piece about Challen by Julie Bindel, a co-founder of the feminist law reform campaign group Justice for Women, which connected Challen with her current legal team.
We cannot know, at this stage, what verdict will be returned by the jury at Challen’s retrial. And it’s worth noting that her family don’t believe she should be subjected to a retrial at all: her son David has said that “it wouldn’t be in the public interest to prosecute a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence, which my mother is and had been since the age of 15”.
But the fact that Challen’s murder conviction has been quashed suggests that attitudes towards domestic abuse are shifting – and the response to her story from the public and the press indicates that more and more people understand the devastating effects of coercive control. And that matters, for reasons that extend far beyond Challen herself. The vast majority of domestic abuse cases involve coercive control: one study found that 95% of domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing it, while other research has shown that up to two-thirds of the women who use refuges in the UK have suffered this form of abuse. The more that we as a society comprehend exactly what it means, the more survivors can be properly supported.
And if Challen is found not guilty of murder at her second trial, it could have huge implications for how coercive control is viewed by the British legal system at large. Coercive and controlling behaviour may have been criminalised for almost four years, but the vast majority of cases are still dropped without charge: between January 2016 and July 2018, just 1,157 cases out of over 7,000 arrests led to someone being charged. Challen’s lawyers hope that her case will change how the offence is treated by the legal profession.
At her trial in 2011, Challen was depicted as a villain. Now, we understand that she was a victim. And that, at the very least, is proof that something has changed.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can seek advice and support via Women’s Aid and Refuge, or call the Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Main image: Getty Images