When 19 year old Jessica Breeze stabbed her abusive and controlling father to death back in June, she was charged with his murder. She had stabbed her father in the back with a kitchen knife after he flew into a rage when he discovered she had been seeing her boyfriend instead of going to work. Breeze’s father, Colin Brady, hit her several times and then turned on her mother when she tried to intervene.
This was not the first time Brady had been physically violent towards his wife and daughter. He had previous convictions for violence and had attacked Kelly Breeze, Jessica’s mother, in an assault that a police constable described as the worst he had ever seen.
As a result of this evidence, a jury cleared Jessica Breeze of her father’s murder this week, accepting that she acted in self-defence.
To many people, it may seem logical, even obvious, that the killing of one’s abuser is most likely to be an act of self defence. But to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) this was not so. The service initially brought the charge against Jessica, reasoning that because her father was stabbed in the back, the self-defence claim was not appropriate. In fact, after Breeze was acquitted of all charges, the CPS made a statement which suggested that though some force may have been understandable in this situation, Jessica ‘plunging a large kitchen knife into the back of her father as he was walking away from her with his coat on, heading for the door, having indicated he was going to leave the house, cannot be reasonable.’
And with that, our prosecution service has demonstrated that it has a very unsophisticated understanding of what self-defence looks like to a woman under attack. And this lack of sophistication from our legal institutions seems to have failed to develop and mature, despite shifts in public attitude.
Indeed, owing to several campaigns, existing laws which allow ‘loss of control’ (previously ‘provocation’) as an acceptable defence for murder have been increasingly applied to cases in which an abused woman kills her partner. At its inception, the provocation/loss of control defence was only acceptable when an individual had killed as a response to immediate violence or threat. If a person stabbed their abuser as they slept then that was seen as an unreasonable and disproportionate action - thus tantamount to murder.
The original application of this law was undoubtedly sexist. Women who kill their abusers are much less likely to do so in the context of an already-violent situation. In such situations, they stand to put themselves at greater risk by retaliating against their abuser. By acting when their abuser’s guard is down, women are not participating in cold blooded murder, but in damage limitation.
For example, when Kiranjit Aluwhalia killed her husband by setting fire to him in 1989 (she had actually intended to injure him so that he couldn’t come after her, as opposed to killing him), she was put on trial for murder. Kiranjit had been subjected to ten years of physical and sexual assault by her husband Deepak, but the judge at her trial reasoned that because there had been a ‘cooling down period’ of a few hours between Kiranjit setting her husband on fire and his last attack on her, what she had done could not constitute self-defence. This was despite the fact that Kiranjit was in constant fear for her and her children’s safety, and that she had endured ten years of hardship before she finally managed to take a stand for herself. Failure to see what she did as self-defence was simply a failure to empathise with a female abuse victim.
Additionally, the original law also displayed a lack of understanding of how abuse, particularly coercive control, affects victims. Many feel stuck in their abusive situation, either by external circumstances, anxiousness for children or even because they dearly love their abuser. When these victims kill their abusers, it is often because they see no other way out of their situation. And this is the important thing: there could be a logical way out, but victims may be unable to see this for themselves, as so many are deliberately manipulated by their abusers into feeling helplessly trapped.
We might believe that we have become more broad-minded, ready to accept that how and why female abuse victims kill is different. But the CPS’s prosecution of Jessica Breeze shows that while juries may have developed greater empathy, the law itself is dragging its heels. The law is often unsubtle, and fails to take into account the nuances of human action. But what is perhaps most infuriating is that this principle of ‘provocation’ or ‘loss of control’ has often been used to acquit men who have murdered their partners after finding out that they had cheated on them. Perhaps even more shocking is the use of the ‘provocation’ argument in 1991 to acquit Joseph McGrail who kicked his wife to death. He said that he had been provoked by her alcoholism and constant swearing. The judge saw this as proportionate provocation, and merely gave McGrail a two year suspended sentence.
The uneven application of the loss of control defence, and the CPS’s reluctance to accept that loss of control may manifest itself in unusual ways for female abuse victims, suggests that the lack of understanding around why women kill is born of a lingering unwillingness to adapt our laws and regulations to meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable. And while the law remains a very white, male and privileged province, it’s difficult to see how that will change any time soon.