Lauren Novak: Women still tend to be victims in domestic violence cases


YES, some women do kill their husbands or boyfriends. Sometimes it’s in self-defence. Sometimes it’s not.

You might have heard of Brisbane woman Katie Anne Castel, who was sentenced earlier this year to nine years’ jail after throwing a knife at her husband Jarred Castel during an argument.

She was originally charged with murder but pleaded guilty to the domestic violence offence of manslaughter over the 2017 incident. Mr Castel’s siblings told the court she had been “psychologically abusing” him and tried to alienate close friends and family.

In 2014, Broome woman Mary Anne Churchill was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing her younger boyfriend David Dunn, who was described as “vulnerable”.

Churchill was reportedly abusive to Mr Dunn, who had wanted to leave her a day before the fatal attack.

These cases appear to involve common markers that experts highlight in abusive relationships: isolation of a partner, a power imbalance or an intention to end a relationship.

It’s just that these are far more often hallmarks of male behaviour towards women.

Figures shared by federally funded research body ANROWS this week make it clear that the majority of what are known as intimate partner homicides involve men killing women. Of 152 such homicides over four years, the research found 121 involved men killing their female partner.

Another 28 women killed a man and three men killed their same-sex partner. No woman killed another woman.

Among the male offenders, about 90 per cent were identified as the primary abuser in the relationship — compared to 7 per cent of female killers.

Instead, 61 per cent of those women were identified as the victim of abuse (which was not the case for a single male killer of a woman).

As Castel and Churchill show, some women do commit acts of domestic violence killings but the research reminds us they are still in the minority.

Other cases feed into a growing debate about when intimate partner murders are self-defence and whether laws need to change to recognise the role of domestic violence.

In the US state of New York a new Act gives judges more options when sentencing survivors convicted of violence against a partner, or committing a crime under coercion.

In the United Kingdom, laws recognising coercive control by a partner as abuse have been used to appeal the conviction of a woman for killing her husband, who she said had psychologically tortured, controlled and humiliated her for years.

Back in Australia, the ABC’s 7.30 Report this week highlighted the case of Jonda Stephen, who was charged with murder after she stabbed her partner Chris Tiffin.

She says she acted in self-defence after he hit her in the head with an iron. She was charged with murder but later acquitted of both murder and manslaughter and is now suing the NSW Government.

In Western Australia, the case of Jody Gore, an Aboriginal woman convicted in 2016 of murdering her former partner, is prompting reform. Gore was released early and WA Attorney-General John Quigley said her history of domestic violence was a key factor in applying “mercy laws”.

He also signalled changes to the criminal code to better recognise the experiences of domestic violence victims who act in self-defence.

In South Australia, Attorney-General Vickie Chapman is drafting legislation which will remove the option for an accused murderer to seek a downgrade to manslaughter if they were “provoked” to kill.

But it is expected to retain that option for domestic violence victims who kill their abuser and can show a history of abuse.

Some have argued this should apply even if the killing is not prompted by an immediate attack, to recognise the “cumulative” effect abuse can have on a victim’s feelings of safety. But it is expected the laws will require the risk to be immediate or ongoing.

When put to Parliament next year, this legislation will no doubt prompt heated debate. But amid the emotion, MPs should remember the hard data and real-world cases that can guide their decision.

For DOMESTIC VIOLENCE support phone 1800 RESPECT

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