Charting the hours that follow a murder from the point of view of the murderer,What the Killer Did Next is a new true crime series blending expert insights from sleuths and psychologists. Fronted by Life on Mars star Philip ‘Gene Hunt’ Glenister, the show looks at some of Britain’s most heinous crimes – including the murder of Sian Roberts, a case that’s indicative of a disturbing new trend in defence pleas.
The 36-year-old Salford hairdresser was found stabbed to death in her own home in 2015. The person who discovered her body was a concerned ex-boyfriend of Sian’s, who was later suspected of being the killer. But the real culprit would turn out to be an acquaintance named Glynn Williams, a convicted criminal who’d been one of the ringleaders of the notorious Strangeways prison riot in 1990 (the longest-running prison riot in British history).
Glynn’s motivation for killing Sian is still something of a mystery. It may have been because she’d discovered he’d been stealing from her. It was also alleged the drug abusing Williams was ‘madly in love’ with Sian, and that the passion was thoroughly unrequited.
What makes the case particularly noteworthy is that Williams had planted a vibrator and a pair of handcuffs by Sian’s body. This, apparently, was a cack-handed attempt to confuse investigators and make it seem like Sian had died during a sex game gone wrong.
This was a bafflingly optimistic ploy by Williams, given that consensual sex games don’t usually feature a violent frenzy of stab wounds. However, his mindset does draw attention to the phenomenon of the ‘50 Shades defence’ – named after 50 Shades of Grey, which brought kinky sex games featuring sexual domination of women into mainstream pop culture.
Labour MP Harriet Harman has spoken out against the rising tide of alleged murders claiming their partners accidentally died during kinky bedroom frolics gone wrong. 'We cannot have a situation where men kill women and blame them,’ she told the BBC. ‘No man will ever be accused of murder again if he can always say, “yes she's injured, she wanted it”.'
The concern is that this defence is either an outright lie or a form of victim blaming, mitigating the responsibility of the person who committed the crime, and placing a shaming glare of scrutiny on the woman who has died.
A recent example is the case of Anna Florence Reed, the 22-year-old granddaughter of famed horse-breeding entrepreneur Guy Reed. When she was found dead in a Swiss hotel room this year, her boyfriend Marc Schatzle explained to police she’d been suffocated in a sex game gone wrong. This allegation was widely reported, abruptly pigeon-holing her death as a lurid accident. Yet, Anna and her couple were heard to be arguing just before her death, and investigators had sufficient reason to arrest Schatzle.
A campaign called ‘We Can’t Consent To This’, formed to raise awareness of the problematic nature of the ‘50 Shades defence’, has estimated that the ‘sex game gone wrong’ explanation has been offered over the deaths of well over 50 British women. Of these, dozens were found to be down to murder, pure and simple, which proves killers have tried to use the defence as a cynical tool to get away with their crime. In other cases, the defence is to some degree accepted, leading to convictions for manslaughter rather than murder.
This, however, is a thorny issue in itself. Take the case of Natalie Connolly, a 26-year-old West Midlands woman who was found dead with horrific injuries in December 2016. Her lover, wealthy businessman John Broadhurst, made the familiar ‘sex games gone wrong’ claim, though even the most hardened veteran of the fetish scene would likely have been shocked by the state Natalie had been left in, with blunt-force trauma to her head, a fractured eye socket, and injuries caused by a bottle of carpet cleaner.
Broadhurst, who described how he found Natalie ‘dead as a doughnut’ hours later, was given three years and eight months for manslaughter – a sentence described as ‘disgraceful’ by Natalie’s father. Writing in The Guardian, journalist Barbara Ellen highlighted the deeper undercurrents of implicit misogyny at work.
‘In Connolly’s case, much has been made of her sexual predilections, but, really, so what?’ Ellen wrote. ‘It doesn’t mean that she fantasized about being beaten, killed or leaving her young daughter motherless. Besides, rough sex means different things to different people, and even very serious BDSM practitioners would have a safe-word to stop things going too far. This overplayed rough sex angle comes across as cynical victim-blaming.’
Ellen’s point about serious BDSM practitioners is also important. ‘Extreme sex’ has gone mainstream, both thanks to books like 50 Shades of Grey and the ready availability of kinky Internet porn. While those in the kink community place a strong emphasis on safe, sane, controlled and consensual games, newcomers and “amateurs” may have no such parameters in place.
Emulating violent porn can have lethal consequences, even if no malice is intended. The context of kink can also provide a kind of ‘rationalization’ when things get out of hand, as in the case of teenager Hannah Pearson, who was killed in 2016. Partner James Morton had an obsession with porn featuring strangulation, and throttled Hannah to death while playing out his porn-fuelled fantasies. He later victim-blamed by saying she should have told him to stop if she didn’t like it.
But, as human rights campaigner Harriet Wistrich points out, the rise in extreme porn means there’s now a ‘presumption that women would be consenting to the kinds of the things that cause their death, without an understanding of how likely it was that the woman was under duress to participate in these activities, or whether they didn’t want to.’
Greater awareness of the nuances is badly required, as the ‘50 Shades defence’ is bound to be used more and more to excuse killers and question the integrity of women murdered by men they trusted.