In Depth

Sally Challen: ‘abused’ wife who murdered husband launches landmark appeal

Mother-of-two was jailed for life in 2010 but could see conviction overturned under new domestic abuse law

A mother who killed her abusive husband with a hammer will challenge her murder conviction in a landmark case at the Court of Appeal this week.

Sally Challen, now 65, bludgeoned her husband Richard to death in 2010 at their home in Claygate, Surrey. She was tried and convicted of the murder in June 2011 and sentenced to a minimum of 22 years behind bars.

Today, her lawyers will tell the court that she was “driven to kill, having been subjected to decades of coercive control by her husband”, reports The Observer. This would be “the first time such a defence has been employed in a murder trial”, the newspaper adds.

Challen’s children, James, 35, and David, 31, have campaigned for her release, amassing a wealth of evidence that they say should have been taken into account during the initial trial.

“Our mother’s actions were not led by the emotions of jealousy nor rage, but stemmed from the lifelong campaign of fear and psychological abuse waged by our father through his coercive, controlling behaviour,” the brothers say.

What did she do?

Sally and Richard Challen married in 1979, after meeting when she was 15 and he was 21. 

Following three decades of marriage, the pair split up and lived in separate houses, but by 2010 they had made plans to reconcile and go on an extended trip together. 

In August 2010, while at his house, Sally Challen discovered messages on her husband’s phone that indicated he was cheating on her, The Guardian reports.

She then served him breakfast before striking him 20 times with a hammer as he ate. After wrapping his body in an old curtain and washing up, she drove back to the flat she shared with son David.

The following morning, she drove to Beachy Head, a notorious suicide spot, and call her cousin to confess to the killing. Police spent three hours talking her off the cliff edge and she was subsequently arrested.

Challen was jailed for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 22 years, but the jail term was reduced by four years on appeal, the BBC reports. She denies murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

Why is this a landmark case?

Challen’s case is being appealed at a two-day hearing during which the court will hear new evidence focusing on the impact of her husband’s controlling behaviour.

He “bullied and belittled [Sally], controlled their money and who she was friends with, not allowing her to socialise without him”, according to Justice For Women, a law firm founded by Harriet Wistrich, who is representing Challen.

The firm claims the dead man had “numerous affairs” and visited brothels during their relationship, and that after initially starting divorce proceedings in 2009, she was “so emotionally dependent on him that she soon returned, even signing a ‘post nuptial’ agreement he drew up that denied her full financial entitlement in the divorce and forbade her from interrupting him or speaking to strangers”.

These claims are backed up by her sons, who told The Independent: “We felt defenceless in what we could do. We always knew there was more to it but it was not against the law to be psychologically controlling and the law did not understand it. You are gagged.”

The Observer reports that this week’s appeal will be a “key test” of a domestic abuse law introduced in 2015 that recognises coercive control as a crime.

Challen’s lawyers will are expected argue that if this law had been in place at the time of her initial trial, she would not have been found guilty of murder.

They will ask the court to overturn the murder conviction and substitute a manslaughter conviction in its place.

Wistrich said: “We are not arguing in this case that coercive control would provide a complete defence to murder, but the circumstances of a lifelong marriage amount to a form of provocation, which should reduce a murder conviction to manslaughter.”

Evidence to be submitted includes emails between the couple and accounts of his allegedly abusive behaviour provided by neighbours, friends and family.

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