When forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes was assigned her first murder case, she had expected she’d be dealing with a male defendant.
So when the killer turned out to be a woman who bludgeoned her husband to death in their family home while he lay unsuspecting of the sofa, it took her by surprise.
Gory pictures from the chaotic crime scene showed where the defendant had tried to cut her victim in two as he lay with his head caked in blood.
But the defendant was far from your typical cold-blooded murderer, as Kerry discovered as she delved deeper into her client’s psyche and marital relationship.
Having worked with some of the most complex and challenging criminals, as well as the victims of crime, Kerry’s job has taken her to maximum-security prisons, police interview rooms and the wards of secure hospitals.
Her latest book, The Dark Side of the Mind, recounts the cases that have shaped her 20-year career.
Here, in a case that echoes that of Sally Challen, who spent eight years in jail for killing her ‘controlling and abusive’ husband, Kerry explains how a defendant who killed her husband in such a savage way walked free from court.
Having worked with some of the most complex and challenging criminals, as well as the victims of crime, Kerry Dayne’s job has taken her to maximum-security prisons, police interview rooms and the wards of secure hospitals
I was 29 years old the first time I was asked to act as an expert witness in a murder case and it felt like I’d reached an important milestone.
It meant I’d achieved a certain level of professional esteem and gravitas. But I knew it also meant my words would have significant ramifications, not only for those on trial, but for their families, and for the public.
It’s a fact that 95 per cent of our killers are men. Overwhelmingly, men are killed by men, and women are killed by men. So when the file came through from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) I was surprised to see I’d been asked to assess a woman.
Alison* was charged with murder, having admitted to killing her husband, Paul*. The CPS wanted to know Alison’s likely mental state on the day she killed him.
Did she have an abnormality of mental functioning that may have caused, or significantly contributed to her conduct? It was clear Alison’s team was hoping to get her charge reduced to manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
I knew there was a strong probability that Alison had been abused by Paul, possibly over a long period of time. When women kill their husbands or exes, it’s usually after months or years of having been abused by the man they have killed.
Kerry, pictured delivering a talk about her latest book, was 29 years old the first time she was asked to act as an expert witness in a murder case
Women are more likely than men to experience extreme emotional abuse and control, and be subject to long-term victimisation. Violent men put a woman in hospital in Britain every three hours. This isn’t misandry, it’s just the uncomfortable truth.
However, I can’t form professional opinions in specific cases based on statistics or probabilities. So I set aside what I knew about the big picture and began instead to scrutinise the small ones in the file from the CPS – photos from the crime scene, detailing what had played out that day at Alison and Paul’s house.
Kerry’s latest book, The Dark Side of the Mind, recounts the cases that have shaped her 20-year career
Looking at crime scene pictures is always strange – intruding on something so personal as someone’s death, albeit through a professional lens. They are images of intense dissonance: the banality of the setting – Paul and Alison’s red-brick semi, shrubs in the driveway and coloured glass in the front door – contrasted with the horror of the crime that has taken place.
For Paul that meant being killed by blunt-force trauma to the head while he lay on the sofa.
This wasn’t an organised or premeditated crime scene. It was a vision of chaos. Paul’s body lay on the floor, his legs and feet sticking out from a blanket he’d been messily bundled up in. His head was caked in blood, the left eye swollen.
There was an unmistakable expression of shock on his face; he had obviously had a split second to register what was about to happen to him. Small stab wounds on his chest, like fingernail marks in the skin of an apple, entry wounds without blood, indicating they’d happened after he had died.
Pictures of his waist showed where she’d apparently tried, not very effectively, to cut him in half – again, no sign of bleeding, just the carved flesh, standing proud. There were bin bags and cleaning sponges in some pictures and a toilet roll on the floral carpet.
This wasn’t so much a cover-up as a clean-up job. The body of someone who has met a premature death is a difficult thing to wipe up after, even for the most prepared killer. Sponging the sofa and trying to lift the blood off the carpet with toilet roll suggested Alison hadn’t been thinking in the calculated way that might have disguised her actions that day.
Other pictures showed an entirely average, if unusually pristine home. Dolls lined up in neat rows in the children’s rooms, ironed shirts and a perfectly-made bed in the main bedroom.
The drive was void of life, no leaves, no plant pots or bins. It was like someone had vacuumed the asphalt. Next to the house the garage, full of tools and paint, a workbench. Underneath a shelf of household products, bleach and disinfectants, a shelf full of alcohol – five or six big bottles of vodka and other spirits.
And then the note. She’d torn pages from a notebook and written in wild, spidery letters, her hand obviously shaking. It said: ‘I can’t cope any more. I’m sorry. Please look after the children, tell them I love them. They are with my mum, please let them stay with my mum.’
Kerry described looking at crime scene pictures as ‘strange – intruding on something so personal as someone’s death, albeit through a professional lens’
It said the same thing over and over on four pages: ‘sorry’ and ‘I couldn’t cope any more’. There was no linear thought process or considered structure here. It had burst out of her, there and then.
I went to see Alison at the prison she was being held in. There are 12 dedicated women’s prisons in England (women make up just 10 percent of the UK prison population.) The interview rooms are mildly more pleasant than in men’s prisons, with bright pictures on the walls and boxes of toys, like a doctor’s surgery waiting room. Only it’s where mothers wait to see their children.
Alison came in, thin and pale, her hair scraped back in a harsh ponytail. Her wide-set brown eyes brimmed with tears that fell slowly and steadily throughout our conversation.
She told me Paul had first hurt her was when she told him she was pregnant, 10 years ago. He smashed her face into the steering wheel of their car.
She later lost the baby when Paul pushed her down the stairs, although he told her it was her imagination, she would have lost the baby anyway. This is a tactic known as gaslighting – when an abuser manipulates their victim into doubting their own perceptions and sanity.
She described a litany of violence – he’d once forced her to drink bleach and had repeatedly raped her. She said Paul liked to drink vodka and on Saturday afternoons he would get obliterated, and expect to have sex. If Alison didn’t seem interested he would rape her, sometimes strangling her to the point where she felt she was going to die.
She told me how she’d developed a habit of meticulously cleaning. It had become something she did when she was feeling anxious, a way of trying to impose order to the chaos of worry in her mind.
Paul would torment her by crushing packets of biscuits and crisps and scattering the contents around the house. He told her she’d get locked up and the children taken away if people knew about her ‘crazy’ cleaning.
Kerry said Alison’s situation was a classic case of battered wife syndrome – a ‘depressing’ term which acknowledges the deep and lasting psychological effects of the kind of ongoing abuse she had endured
Join any discussion on domestic abuse, and someone will ask, incredulous, why women don’t just leave or call the police. It sounds so simple. But the dynamic between two people in an abusive relationship is an intense spinning wheel that is hard to leap from.
The victim begins to believe her circumstances are a result of her personal failure, and views herself as worthless. The abuser becomes attached to their power, the use of violence and the humility of their victim. So leaving, while it may sound like an obvious course of action to many, is often impossible for the victim.
Alison was in the kitchen when Paul shouted to her from where he was lying on the sofa, to bring him a bottle of vodka from the garage. Knowing what this meant, she walked to the garage and, standing in front of the rows of alcohol, picked up a pipe wrench instead.
She recalled numbness, a sense of free-floating in time as she turned around and walked into the lounge. Standing behind Paul, prone on the sofa with his eyes closed, she brought down the wrench with all her strength to his head. She didn’t know how many times she had done it.
She drew in breath as she told me this, visibly horrified by what she had just said. Then she said: ‘Poor Paul, poor Paul.’
She ran back into the kitchen and grabbed a small serrated knife from the knife-block and stood there, expecting him to burst through. When she went tentatively back into the lounge, she shook him to see if he was alive, the movement of his body scared her and she punched down on his chest, stabbing him. But he was already dead.
She began to say ‘Poor Paul’ again but before the words could come she threw up. All over my new shoes.
Alison’s case echoed that of Sally Challen, who is said to have been dominated by her husband during their marriage and wasn’t allowed to have friends of her own, while her husband visited prostitutes
Mrs Challen, pictured with her son David at a press conference after being released from prison after eight years, said that she still loved her husband and he was ‘part of her life’
I recognised the cycle of abuse she described. I’d had a short relationship with a prison officer I’d met in Wakefield a few years before, but he’d quickly become domineering and frightening; when I didn’t dress as he wanted, put a smile on my face like he wanted.
It was what we now refer to as coercive control. I can spot it at 30 paces these days. But back then we didn’t have a word for it. The onset was so insidious that I may not have identified it, even if we had. So I understood Alison’s state of perpetual fear – waiting for something to blow up and doing everything you can to avoid it.
But of course you can’t, because it isn’t your behaviour that is the problem, it is theirs.
There was no doubt that Alison’s was a classic case of battered wife syndrome. This depressing term acknowledges the deep and lasting psychological effects of the kind of ongoing abuse Alison had endured. But it’s not my preferred terminology; something about it makes it sound almost like a lifestyle choice, like stay-at-home-mum with violence. More relevant, it is neither a category of legal defence, nor a recognised diagnostic label in psychiatry, the term wouldn’t hold sway in court.
Kerry recognised the cycle of abuse Alison described as she’d had a short relationship with a prison officer she’d met in Wakefield a few years before, but he’d quickly become domineering and frightening
There are a limited number of defences available to someone accused of murder who hopes to have the charge reduced to manslaughter. A ‘sudden and temporary’ loss of control (what used to be termed ‘provocation’) is the most common but has an unsuccessful track record for abused women.
An explosive response that ends in someone’s death usually requires you to be at least as powerful, and ideally more physically dominant than them. A woman rarely has the option of letting go in this way while she is being assaulted or threatened, as abusive men are generally bigger and stronger and more terrifying than the women they pick on.
In effect, the law works for those who kill in the heat of the moment – and they are predominantly men. Unsurprisingly, the majority of cases concerning female killers involve the use of weapons: knives, poison or fire. Getting hold of these, even if it takes a matter of seconds, is deemed a premeditated action and therefore outside of the loss of control defence.
I wrote a detailed report describing how Alison was easy prey for a controlling man who had over many years beat, raped and humiliated her. On the cusp of another assault, her fear was so intense that, for the first time, she fought back.
Aware that the court required a specific psychiatric diagnosis, I wrote that, in my opinion, it was likely that Alison did have an abnormality of mind at the time she killed Paul as she described criteria for at least three diagnostic labels: ‘post traumatic stress disorder’; ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’ and ‘depression’.
Reducing individual stories to ‘symptoms’ like this is like trying to capture the Mona Lisa smile with only a painting-by-numbers set at my disposal.
I didn’t attend the proceedings, but a few weeks later the story came up on the evening news. As Alison, looking shell-shocked, walked out of the front door of Crown Court, the reporter declared she’d been found guilty of manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Kerry was genuinely surprised Alison had not been sent to prison, but was also satisfied that she would at least get the right help
The Court had heard that she had ‘killed her husband because she was suffering from three different mental illnesses’. The judge had suspended a custodial sentence, on the condition that she received psychiatric treatment.
I was genuinely surprised Alison had not been sent to prison, but I was also satisfied that she would at least get the right help now. But an abnormality of mind? Her actions were extreme, undoubtedly. But is it abnormal to react in an extreme way to repeated trauma?
Under different circumstances, if the outcome wasn’t so deadly, her body’s rise to meet a vicious threat would be viewed as a normal, useful survival response.
As I got into bed and dimmed my bedroom light, I remembered how Paul made Alison believe that the authorities would take her away, if they ever found out just how mad she was. The truth was that her reality – the adversity she had suffered that ultimately led to her attack on Paul – had been written out of her story.
We had all conspired to tell the world she had not one, but three mental illnesses. Wasn’t this just another form of victim blaming, gaslighting on an institutional scale? It was a mental snag that didn’t quite leave me, but I wasn’t yet willing to confront.
The Dark Side of the Mind by Kerry Daynes is published by Endeavour, £16.99 www.octopusbooks.co.uk.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.