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Sally Challen: A victim of coercive control

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Sally Challen walked free from court in June 2019 after the judge announced she would not face a retrial.

It's been over a decade since Sally Challen murdered her husband, Richard, with a hammer. She admitted killing him and at trial, it was argued that she was not suffering from 'abnormality of mind' when she did so. Now, she has won a groundbreaking appeal against her conviction and will face a retrial, something the couple’s two sons have been campaigning for. Which all begs the question: why?

Sally met Richard when he was 22 and she was just 15. The couple married and had two sons together. After 31 years of marriage, they separated for a year, but were planning to reconcile. One morning in August 2010, Sally went round to her former marital home to meet Richard. They were planning to sell the house and use the money to take a trip. That morning, Richard asked for bacon and eggs, so Sally went out to buy them, came home and cooked him breakfast. While he ate, she took out the hammer she had in her bag and bludgeoned him with it, hitting him more than 20 times. When she was finished, she stuck a tea towel in his mouth and wrapped his body in old curtains. She wrote a note that read ‘I love you, Sally’ and placed it on the body, before driving home.

It wasn’t until the next day, after she had driven one of their sons to work, that she drove to Beachy Head, called her cousin to confess and then walked to the edge. She had to be talked down by a suicide prevention team.

‘Why’ is the main question that seems to hang over this case. Why did a woman brutally kill the husband she was supposedly devoted to? Why did she do so when they were planning to reconcile? Why are the couple’s two children so supportive of the woman who killed their father? Why could this all now be overturned?

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, at least one of those questions seemed to have a clear answer: why did she do it? Sally herself told us why: because Richard was cheating on her. Because as she went out to buy him the ingredients for breakfast, he had spoken to a woman he had met on a networking site. A woman who had just called him right before Sally returned. She found all of this on his phone when she came home, before she made him breakfast. 'If I can’t have him, no one can,' she said, as she was talked away from the edge of the cliffs. And in court: 'I just didn't think that he wanted to be with me.' She was painted as the jealous wife. She went through his emails and counted his Viagra. Jealousy seemed like the obvious answer.

But there was another layer to this case that didn’t become clear until after Sally had been convicted of the murder: she had been the victim of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her husband for the duration of their marriage— according to her friends, for the duration of their relationship.Their sons have said Richard consistently humiliated her (criticising her weight and appearance), isolated her from support networks and controlled every aspect of her life. Once, after one of his friends kissed her,Richard anally raped Sally as a punishment. He, in turn, repeatedly cheated on her. He visited a brothel near where she worked (one where trafficked women were being held). He sent out a Christmas card that showed him standing with his Ferrari and two women in bikinis. Sally wasn’t allowed to question Richard and he would tell her that she was ‘going mad’ and ‘making it all up’. It’s telling that not only have her sons been her constant supporters, but no one on Richard’s side of the family has spoken out against her, either.

But still, the murder was committed in cold blood, wasn’t it? Her life wasn’t in danger at the moment of the attack. In fact, the pair were planning on reuniting and Richard was simply eating breakfast. Self-defence doesn’t seem applicable here. So why is it that the courts have decided to overturn Sally’s conviction—a landmark decision? Why couldn’t the abuse be used as a defence in her original trial?

Sally’s lawyers will argue coercive control, something that didn’t become a criminal offence until 2015—four years after Sally’s trial. Her son David says it’s a term that still isn’t understood. Bearing that in mind, what is coercive control and what does it mean in this case? The law describes it as a “continuing act, or pattern of acts, of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.” It includes things like isolating the victim from friends and family, constantly humiliating and degrading them and threatening them. The government has said it’s primarily used against women and girls.

During Sally’s appeal, retired forensic social worker Professor Stark was called to give his expert opinion. He said that 'in its extreme, coercive control creates a hostage-like-feeling of entrapment, similar to being a prisoner of war.' Stark also told the court that homicide is the 'ultimate risk' of coercive control. This would mean that Sally’s attack on Richard wasn’t a result of jealousy over the latest signs of Richard’s infidelity, but as a consequence of decades of psychological manipulation and domestic abuse that would have left Sally feeling trapped and unable to escape unless by suicide or murder.

As David Challen told Sky News: 'We don't justify it… But that crime needs to be judged properly. She's not vengeful, she's not jealous, she was psychologically manipulated and that is what coercive control is.'

It is a case that begs a lot of questions, like will the courts recognise the effect of Richard’s abuse as a reason for the killing? Will Sally’s retrial lead to a conviction of manslaughter over murder? What will happen next?