Labour has branded the sentence handed to a pensioner who killed his wife days into the first national lockdown “deeply worrying” and called for the case to be referred to the Court of Appeal.
Anthony Williams was sentenced to five years in prison at Swansea crown court on Thursday last week after being found not guilty of murder despite the judge noting the 70-year-old had taken his wife’s life in an “’act of great violence”.
Ruth Williams was discovered slumped in the porch of their home in Cwmbran in south Wales with keys in her hand before being announced dead at hospital in Newport.
Williams, who admitted to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, informed police he had “choked the living daylights” out of his wife of 46 years after an argument on 28 March – telling detectives he just snapped when she told him to “get over it.”
Labour’s Shadow Solicitor General, Ellie Reeves, and Shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister, Jess Phillips, have called for the sentence given to Williams to be referred to the Court of Appeal under the “unduly lenient sentencing scheme” in a letter seen by The Independent.
New measures came into force in 2019 overhauling the existing Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme which was already in place for crimes such as murder, rape and terrorism. The government added 14 new offences to the scheme, with domestic abuse, stalking, and coercive and controlling behaviour among those now included.
Writing to the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, the Labour MPs warned the sentence handed to Williams is “deeply worrying, and sends the wrong message about tackling this heinous crime”.
“Had the victim been another member of the public we believe it is highly likely Mr Williams’s sentence would have been more severe,” the shadow ministers stated. “The fact that this domestic homicide has received such a comparatively lenient sentence especially when the government has been promoting a maximum 10-year sentence for lying on a passenger locator form to enter the country seems to indicate that domestic violence is a less serious crime and worthy of lesser punishment.”
The MPs added: “Furthermore, it is reported that during the trial Mr Williams stated that he had found lockdown ‘really hard’ and felt depressed just five days into the restrictions. A psychiatrist also told the trial that Mr Williams’ anxiety and depressive illness were heightened by the lockdown and impaired his ability to exercise self-control.
“However, we also note there is a culture of excuses surrounding the prosecution of domestic violence generally and it is sadly the case that domestic homicides often follow years of abuse and controlling behaviour.”
Ms Reeves and Ms Phillips argued the Covid crisis and the lockdown measures that have sprung up in a bid to control the virus “do not justify, nor do they excuse any form of abuse”.
The politicians added: “Yet this sentence would seem to indicate that if the victim is your wife as opposed to another member of the public then the perpetrator is deserving of a discounted sentence.
“We, therefore, call on you to refer this case to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentence scheme to combat this narrative, ensure that the right sentence has been made and give confidence to the public that any incidence of domestic violence will receive a just sentence.”
The letter comes after fellow Labour MP Harriet Harman last week announced she would write to Ms Braverman urging her to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as an unduly lenient sentence.
A post-mortem investigating the death of Ms Williams, who previously worked in a supermarket but had retired, found the 67-year-old’s neck was fractured in five places, and that she had endured haemorrhaging in her eyes, face and mouth consistent with strangulation.
Pressure to the neck was found to be the cause of her death, which took place on 28 March last year, but a pathologist said the absence of a ligature mark on her neck meant the use of a “soft” dressing gown cord discovered at their home could not be ruled out.
Judge Paul Thomas argued Williams’ mental state was “severely affected at the time”.
Gwendolyn Sterk, a spokesperson for Welsh Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, said: “We are shocked by the leniency in this case and support this being raised with the attorney general. We want assurance action will be taken to ensure a precedent is not set that allows domestic abuse and homicide to be seen as an inevitable result of the current restrictions.
“Domestic homicides often follow years of coercive and controlling abuse and it is vital this is understood by all in our justice system. We have seen an exposure of domestic abuse during the pandemic with increased severity of abuse experienced by callers to our Live Fear Free Helpline.”
Meanwhile Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, chair of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, told The Independent the sentence given to Williams is “cause for great concern” and they also back calls for the case to be referred.
She added: “Two women a week are killed across England and Wales by a current or former partner and one in four women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime. What sort of message does this sentence send to women experiencing domestic abuse and their perpetrator?
“Domestic homicide must be seen as the brutal crime that it is – this case and the sentence further highlights the need for urgent reform of our murder laws and sentences which have remained substantially unchanged for over 60 years and should act as a wake-up call.”
Anger comes after the Centre for Women’s Justice released a first of its kind study last week which revealed 43 per cent of women who kill men who have been abusive to them are convicted of murder, while 46 per cent are found guilty of manslaughter.
The study, titled “Women Who Kill – how the state criminalises women we might otherwise be burying”, found that in many instances where women were convicted of manslaughter, they were given sentences of around 14 to 18 years.
Commenting on the sentencing of Williams, Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “Yet again we see deep-seated discriminatory attitudes laid bare by this latest sentencing which at its heart rests on a culture of misogyny. It is clear that women who resist male violence are punished most severely, whereas men who throttle their wives to death for no apparent reason are just ‘tragic’ figures.”