Visit Siani's Other Blogs

Visit Gower Strange Days

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The crime of patriarchy in British justice

I will never understand the arbitrary, almost capricious manner in which some judges administer justice in the UK courts. I gained a 2:1 in my law degree, yet the reasoning of certain judges leaves me befuddled and aghast. I refer specifically to the case discussed in an article in today's Guardian, Ex-lover who strangled heiress is cleared of murder.

Essentially, a rich but vulnerable heiress, Suzy Healey, who was the daughter of the Hygena kitchen tycoon Malcolm Healey, was murdered ten months ago, by her boyfriend, Richard Holtby. It seems Ms. Healy was popular and well-loved, despite the isolating effects of manic depression and a drink problem. Her relationship with Holtby, a jobless, scrounging control freak, by all accounts, sounds like it was an on-off affair. She slept with another man, so Holtby strangled her in cold blood. Yet the jury convicted him of manslaughter, presumably on the judge's direction, rather than murder.

I cannot help but question the judge's direction, and the jury's finding that Holtby committed manslaughter rather than murder. I'm especially alarmed at the fact that the judge seemed to contradict himself. On the one hand, he stated that Holtby had known about Ms. Healey's infidelity for at least two days and it therefore was not "a bolt from the blue". He also told Holtby, after stressing the relationship was just nine months old, that "the remorse you have professed in court is more directed at your own plight rather than for the woman whose life you cut short for no good reason." The judge also told Holtby that he had merely suffered a "low degree" of provocation. So why was this defendant convicted of manslaughter and not murder?

He killed her out of malice and the need to dominate and control, to make her his property, and ensure no other man could ever touch her again. He was essentially claiming ownership of her. Had he stumbled across her unexpectedly with another man, I might just buy his claims to have been provoked. But waiting a full two days after discovering her infidelity, to kill her?

As far as I'm aware, there has been no substantial change to the manner in which a defence of provocation is established, in the seven years since I graduated. Initially, to establish a defence of provocation, it must be shown that a reasonable man would have acted in a similar manner in such a situation. It is also necessary to show that there was sudden and temporary loss of control. The defence is further qualified by the fact that only events immediately before the killing should be considered. As Holtby waited a full two days after Ms. Healey's admission of infidelity before killing her, this sounds less like a sudden loss of self-control, and more like a festering of resentment, culminating in a revenge killing. Yet the judge directs the jury to a verdict of manslaughter, rather than murder.

Why is this judge allowing an admission of infidelity two days prior to a murder, to be the basis of a successful defence of provocation? The defence of provocation is definitely a defence that works in favour of male defendants and against female ones. Female domestic violence victims who have snapped and murdered their abusers, have frequently failed to establish a defence of provocation, on the grounds that the killings occurred hours or days after the last abuse they suffered. The fact that they may have suffered abuse for months or years is also disregarded, on the grounds that the provoking event must occur in more or less immediate proximity to the subsequent killing.

My personal thoughts on the Suzy Healey case is that the judge was a moralistic chauvinist. Despite a requirement that he remained objective, it sounds like he judged Ms. Healey as well as her killer, and because he disapproved of her lifestyle, decided to direct the jury to a verdict of manslaughter. A finding of murder would have meant a mandatory life sentence. However, a verdict of manslaughter gives a judge full control over the sentence imposed. In this instance, Holtby received just eight and a half years, for snuffing out another life. Yet women who kill abusive partners cannot rely on the defence of provocation, and find themselves facing life terms.

It seems that the defence of provocation is heavily weighted in favour of male defendants. To me, this smacks of male chauvinism being allowed to permeate the administration of justice, at the hands of a male-dominated judiciary. I'm no rabid feminist, but I really do feel many judges are anachronistic, still living in the days when men regarded women as mere chattels, and not human beings with rights. If a man kills a woman and pleads provocation, it seems he stands a much greater chance of receiving empathy from a male judge. On the other hand, a woman who kills and pleads provocation, is more likely to be branded a revenge killer. Isn't it time the government legislated, and clarified the specific circumstances in which this much-abused and misapplied defence can be successfully pleaded? I believe Holtby should be serving a mandatory life sentence for murder, and that his lesser conviction and sentence are as much the result of judgment being passed on his victim, as himself.

No comments: