Women who kill: how the state criminalises women we might otherwise be burying
By Sophie Howes, Research Consultant, Centre for Women’s Justice
Those working in the field of violence against women and girls are primarily focused on the state’s duties to protect, prevent and investigate crimes of violence perpetrated against women and girls. We often refer to the horrendous statistic that on average three women a fortnight die at the hands of their violent partners.
There are also a small number of cases each year that deserve our attention, in which women kill their abusive partners. This research sets out to explore the extent to which women who kill are also victims and why, despite this, so many are convicted of murder.
This article sets out some selected findings from our research, which charts women’s treatment throughout the criminal justice process and considers what needs to change.
To explore the experiences of women who have killed within the criminal justice system, we used a variety of sources. Most notably, as well as speaking to lawyers and other practitioners with experience of these cases, the research team spoke to women directly.
Women rarely kill, and when they do it is often in circumstances involving abuse. Over a ten year period, 108 men were killed by female partners/ex-partners, in stark contrast to the 840 women killed by male partners/ex-partners during the same period. Our research looked at a subset of these 108 cases and found evidence of abuse in 77% of these cases.
Criminal justice responses to women as victims of violence
When women do kill, it is often because of failings in the very system that is supposed to protect them. Women told us about how the criminal justice system had failed to protect them.
‘I had this injunction out on him and he was still coming to the house at half one, two, three in the morning. Just wouldn’t stay away and then I’m in the house on my own.’ (Interview 2)
Of the 20 women interviewed as part of the research, just eight had reported the abuse they experienced to the police, and for those who had reported, police responses were often poor, leading to under-reporting when they experienced further violence.
Immediately after the killing
Women told us that they were shocked and traumatised in the period immediately after the killing, and were often unable to comprehend what was happening. Despite this, women are often making key decisions that can have long-term consequences for their legal case, for example, whether or not to speak in police interview, or who their lawyer is going to be. The impact of these decisions can be difficult to change at a later date.
Preparing for trial
For those cases that go to trial, building a strong defence that contextualises a woman’s actions in her past experiences of abuse is essential. However, this relies on a number of factors that were too often absent from the cases included in our study. Firstly, lawyers having a good understanding of violence against women is crucial so they can build a trusting relationship with women and facilitate their disclosure of abuse. This should include not just physical acts of violence, but the range of abuse women experience, including sexual abuse and coercive control.
‘I understand the dynamics of domestic violence and how it starts, that it’s not about the first time he hits her but what happened way before this… if you don’t understand this, you won’t realise that information that the woman is telling you, or witnesses are telling you, that they might think is insignificant, is actually really important. Building up a picture of abuse for the jury involves the incidences of coercive control that might seem minor on their own. If you don’t understand VAWG, you won’t see this as a lawyer.’ (Lawyer interview 3)
For lawyers to explore this full history with women takes time, however many of the lawyers who participated in our research told us this is very difficult within the constraints of legal aid funding and the limited time they have to spend with clients.
In addition to supporting women to disclose abuse, lawyers must also prepare women for presenting evidence of that abuse at trial. A woman’s testimony is often key to the outcome of her case, however women told us that giving evidence at trial was traumatic and many were unable to talk about the abuse in full.
‘During the trial I didn’t want to talk about when the relationship was bad. His family were all there and I didn’t want to properly address what he was in front of his family. In the forefront of my mind I knew I’d murdered him and that was enough. I didn’t want to be embarrassed saying what he’d done to me.’ (Interview 9).
Even when women feel able to talk about the abuse they have experienced, and lawyers present this evidence effectively in court, other key players in the trial process, such as the judge, jury, and prosecuting lawyers, must also have an understanding of violence against women. Often this is lacking, which leads to women experiencing further barriers to a just outcome. Common hurdles identified by our research included judges concluding that ‘she gave as good as she got’ (i.e. the violence was equal), or the use of myths and stereotypes to undermine her experience of abuse (for example, stereotypes regarding how a victim of domestic violence should behave).
Our research found that the vast majority of women who kill are convicted of either murder or manslaughter. Just 6% of the cases included in our study resulted in women being acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. As a result, women are often serving long sentences for crimes that arguably would not be seen as such, if they had occurred outside the context of intimate partner relationships, including defending yourself from serious physical attack. Once women are convicted, the chance of a successful appeal is extremely slim. Women are then caught up in a prison system designed for men that fails to recognise their dual status as both victim and perpetrator.
Improving outcomes for women
At the Centre for Women’s Justice, we are determined to use our research findings to try and secure meaningful change within the criminal justice system that will help women in these cases. The challenges identified in this article can be overcome if there is the will to do so. Some challenges require system change; by increasing understanding of violence against women across different criminal justice agencies and tackling misogyny and victim blaming.
Other challenges can be overcome by improving practice, for example individual lawyers can take steps to improve their own understanding of violence against women which will help facilitate disclosure of abuse. Further legal reform would also help, including legislation to replicate the householder defence for survivors acting in self-defence against their abuser.
Our research demonstrates that, despite some tweaking around the edges in recent years, there is more work to be done to improve the law, the system, and individual practice to help improve justice outcomes for women in these cases.
To explore the research in full please go to: https://www.centreforwomensjustice.org.uk/women-who-kill
 There was little or no information in the public domain about the remaining 16 cases.