Sally killed Richard in 2010 after years of being controlled and humiliated by him. At the time of her conviction, ‘coercive control’ was not a crime in England and Wales, only becoming recognised in law as a form of domestic abuse in 2015. Coercive control is a way of understanding domestic violence which foregrounds the psychological abuse and can involve manipulation, degradation, gaslighting (using mind games to make the other person doubt their sanity) and generally monitoring and controlling the person’s day-to-day life such as their friends, activities and clothing. This often leads to the abused becoming isolated and dependent on the abuser. It was dramatised very well in Helen’s storyline in Radio 4’s The Archer’s back in 2016.
Sally was only 16 when she met 22 year old Richard. At first he was charming but gradually the abuse began. He bullied and belittled her, controlled their money and who she was friends with, not allowing her to socialise without him. But, whilst he forced strict restrictions on her behavior, he himself, would flaunt his money, have numerous affairs and visit brothels. If she challenged him, he would turn it back on her and make her feel she was going mad. Although Sally did manage at one point to leave Richard, even starting divorce proceedings, 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.
It was not long after this reunion, that Richard the offence took place. Sally, so utterly dependent on Richard, wanted to believe that they could be together, but his behaviour towards her was increasingly humiliating. The final straw was when he sent Sally out in the rain to get his lunch so that he could phone a woman he had been planning to meet from a dating agency. Sally returned suspicious and challenged him, he commanded her not to question him and she struck him repeatedly with a hammer.
Her defence at trial was diminished responsibility, the legal team downplayed the abusive behavior of her husband, Sally was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 22 years, reduced to 18 at appeal. Despite the death of their father, Sally’s two sons and all those who knew Sally and Richard well have supported her recognizing that she was completely controlled by Richard.
In 2017, Justice for Women submitted new grounds of appeal to the Criminal Appeal court highlighting new psychiatric evidence and an expert report showing how coercive control provides a better framework for understanding Sally’s ultimate response in the context of a history of provocation. Unfortunately, permission to appeal was refused by a judge who read only some papers. On 1st March Sally's legal team submitted a renewed oral application for appeal before three court of appeal judges and Sally was granted leave to appeal.
On 27th and 28th February the Court of Appeal heard new evidence and Sally’s conviction was overturned and a retrial ordered. In June 2019, prosecutors accepted Sally’s plea to manslaughter and was sentenced to 9 years and 4 months meaning she walked free due to time already served.
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Real Crime Profile :
Laura Richards and Lisa Zambetti discuss Sally Challen's murder conviction and successful appeal on March 1st, the pioneering coercive control law and the lawyer, Harriet Wistrich, who is holding the state to account when they let women down. This is a special episode to mark International Women's Day and pay tribute to Harriet and other leading advocates who tirelessly lobby, campaign and raise awareness of injustice on behalf of women who have lost their voice and been let down