How many times can a man get away with killing his wife and girlfriends?

Police-issued photo of Theodore Johnson.

In 1981 Theodore Johnson killed his wife, Yvonne by hitting her over the head with a vase before pushing her off the balcony of their flat in Wolverhampton. He claimed manslaughter by provocation, saying that his wife wouldn’t let him go to church because he wasn’t dressed well enough.

The CPS accepted his plea and the judge described him as a “battered husband”. He was jailed for three years.

In 1993, he killed his next partner, a women called Yvonne Bennett who he met after his release from prison. He strangled her with a belt while their young daughter slept. He claimed manslaughter by diminished responsibility, saying that his wife had had an affair.

The CPS accepted his plea and was detained “indefinitely” in a secure hospital. He was released four years later.

One of the conditions of his release was that he would inform the authorities if he started another relationship. He did not do so, and on four occasions denied having any relationships with women.

In December 2016, he killed his former partner, Angela Best, by beating her with a claw hammer and strangling her with her dressing gown cord. He claimed manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. His excuse? He was angry because his ex-partner was seeing somebody else.

The CPS, on this occasion, did not accept his plea. He was due to stand trial but changed his plea on what would have been the first day of the trial.

Today he was sentenced to life imprisonment and told he must serve a minimum of 26 years before being considered for release. He will be 90 before he is eligible for parole.

A number of questions spring to mind:

  1. Why did the CPS accept his plea of provocation on the first offence and diminished responsibility for the second offence? Yes, there can be provocation. It is usually the other way around – where women have been subjected to years of abuse. Normally, though, the criminal justice system leaves the question of provocation as a factual issue to be determined by the jury. If a women pleads provocation they will, more likely than not, have to convince a jury that they were provoked. Why not Johnson?If he had been convicted of murder, it is highly likely that Yvonne Bennett and Angela Best would still be alive.
  2. Why is somebody ordered to be detained “indefinitely” released after just four years? This has resonance with the Worboys case.The defence of diminished responsibility recognises that when a person is so seriously of deranged mind that they are not responsible for their actions, they should receive medical help rather than punishment: but there is a need to protect the public as well as the patient, which is why people with such conditions are detained in secure units rather than being free to accept or decline treatment. Do medics really believe that there is some miracle cure that can make such a person safe to be released after just four years of treatment?
  3. Who ensures that conditions attached to early release are followed? One of the condition of his release after four years was that he should notify medics if he got involved in a relationship. He didn’t. And they appeared unaware that he had done so. This also has resonance with John Worboys. We are told that he will be released under strict conditions. But what is the point of such conditions if “the system” is unable to properly supervise and ensure such conditions are being observed?
  4. Finally, when will the criminal justice system stop failing women? By failing women, it fails all of us.A few years ago, I interviewed John and Penny Clough about the murder of their daughter Jane. She had been repeatedly raped by her ex-partner, Jonathan Vass. He was granted bail while he awaited trial on rape charges, despite his threats to kill her. While on bail he murdered Jane by repeatedly stabbing and slashing her in the car park of the hospital where she worked. Her injuries were so severe that her own colleagues in the accident and emergency department did not recognise her.

    He was charged with murder and is currently serving a life sentence. He will be eligible for parole in 2040. The rape charges were dropped. John Clough told me: “There is now a legal way to get away with rape – murder your victim”. Those words came back to me yesterday and today as I considered the case of John Worboys. There is now another legal way to get away with rape – attack more than 10 victims. The criminal justice system will concentrate on a small number and let you get away with the others.

Vass, Worboys and Johnson are not unique. There are all too many cases of men getting away with violence against women, or being treated all-to-leniently.

Jane Clough is dead because Vass was granted bail despite threatening to kill his victim.

Yvonne Bennett and Angela Best are dead because Johnson was allowed to claim manslaughter to get away with murder.

How many women will die because Worboys has had the bulk of his offending ignored by the criminal justice system?

Today is the anniversary of the death of my wife Jill Saward – a strong campaigner for victims of crime, and in particular for victims of gender-based violence. She fought to ensure that cases like this are not allowed to become the norm. That fight goes on. And, as the events of this week show, that fight is more urgent than ever.