Ellie Wain: gender violence and institutionalised sexism in the justice system
The conviction of 18-year-old Coventry woman Ellie Wain for murder will have shocked many people. Ellie was accused of stabbing her partner, Kieran Brown, during a violent argument. However, during her police interviews and again during her trial, she maintained that Brown was abusive towards her, and that she killed him unintentionally after he threw her to the ground and punched her. Ellie was sentenced to life in prison, serving a minimum of 17 years.
By contrast, Anthony Williams killed his wife in what the judge described as “an act of great violence”. In Williams’ own words, he “literally choked the living daylights out of” his wife Ruth. He was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility – because he “snapped” after five days of lockdown. He was jailed for just five years.
Ellie’s case is reminiscent of many in the past such as Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Sara Thornton and Kate Keaveney, who killed their abusive partners and were initially wrongly convicted of murder. Members of one of Socialist Alternative’s predecessor organisations, Militant, formed the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) and carried out solidarity work with these and other imprisoned women. Kate Keaveney even carried out a fundraiser for the CADV while in prison!
Ellie was in a four-year on-off relationship with Kieran Brown. She and other witnesses say that Brown had hit her “frequently”, strangled her and threatened her with knives. Even a prosecution witness said that she often heard them arguing, and heard Ellie confront Brown about threatening her.
A witness said in court that Brown was angry with Ellie and grabbed her by her clothing at the beginning of their argument. Ellie was “feeling alone and vulnerable” as Brown tried to kick the door down and threatened to get his dad to help. She picked up a knife, telling police this was because she had “never been as scared of someone in [her] entire life” as she was of Brown.
Ellie says that Brown pinned Ellie to the floor and punched her in front of his dad, who did not intervene. During this altercation he was stabbed and later died, which Ellie maintains was not her intention.
When Ellie was later arrested and told that Brown had died she did not believe he was dead, suggesting that her genuine intention was to protect herself. Before being told he was dead she also asked why he had not been arrested for stabbing and punching her during the altercation.
Crucial evidence showing Brown’s prior abuse of Ellie was not shown in court, and family members and friends who witnessed abuse were not called to testify.
During 2020 at least 104 women were killed by violent men in the UK. The domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline from last year. This context of extreme violence against women, a “second pandemic”, cannot be ignored. Defence barristers for one of their killers, Anthony Williams, used the lockdown as an excuse for his violent behaviour – despite a psychiatrist saying he had no history of mental illness, “no psychiatric defences” for his actions, and that “he knew what he was doing” when he killed his wife. Ellie was treated very differently; psychiatrists who assessed her testified that she had PTSD, but she was still convicted of murder.
Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Sara Thornton were eventually released from prison after being convicted at new trials on the lesser charge of manslaughter. Many other women have been in the same position – one of them, Farieissia Martin, has recently been granted a new trial, and we hope she is acquitted and able to go free.
There is significant evidence from these cases and more showing that women who are abused by their partners suffer severe mental strain and eventually react. No evidence was presented in Ellie’s defence during her trial, outside of cross-examination of witnesses and a closing speech. It is no surprise that a working class woman was demonised in the media and received an apparently poor legal defence.
The judge in Ellie’s case described her as “a willing participant” in domestic violence during her relationship with Brown. This is a common theme which comes up in trial comments on intimate partner violence cases – “she gave as good as she got”. This is almost universally applied to working class women, and ignores the power dynamics within the relationships.
Some will ask “Why didn’t Ellie just call the police?”. Unfortunately calling the police is not a guarantee of safety for women at risk of violence. The police are a state force whose role is not to protect women and oppressed people, but to maintain a system which oppresses them.
There are tragic examples which demonstrate this in practice. Shana Grice complained to the police at least five times about the behaviour of her ex-boyfriend, Michael Lane, who broke into her flat, let down her tyres, stalked her, assaulted her and put a tracking device on her car. Rather than imprisoning Lane, police issued Shana with a fine for “wasting police time”. This was despite Lane having previously been arrested for grooming a 14-year-old girl. On August 4th 2016 Shana saw Lane outside her flat, but told a friend she would not tell the police because she did not think they would believe her as they had consistently failed to take her complaints seriously. Just three weeks later Lane murdered her in her home.
Another example is Christine Devaney, who called the police after her drunk, abusive partner, David McIlroy, kicked her door in. When the police arrived Christine asked them to remove McIlroy from her home – they refused on the grounds that she had also been drinking. Less than an hour later McIlroy attacked Christine and she stabbed him, leading to her wrongful conviction for murder. Had the police removed McIlroy when she called them this would not have happened. Ellie had also been drinking on the day of Brown’s death – would the police have ignored her like they ignored Christine?
Under this system women clearly do not have the right to defend themselves, or the right to be defended.
The justice system
The justice system under capitalism is not equipped to deal with many crimes, but particularly issues of gendered violence. Women’s accusations of abuse and sexual violence are not taken seriously, which is part of why so few victims come forward. Verdicts such as this, which tell women they can’t defend themselves and they won’t be believed if they do, contribute to the continuation of violence against women.
The recently released “Women Who Kill” report by the Centre for Women’s Justice highlights the inequalities of this system. Aptly subtitled “how the state criminalises women we might otherwise be burying”, the report looked at 92 cases of women who killed or were implicated in killing their partners or former partners. They found that in 77% of these cases, the women had killed men who were abusive to them – but only 6% of the women were acquitted, with 43% being convicted of murder. The majority of the women interviewed did not report abuse to the police – like most women who experience domestic abuse. This was used by the police and prosecution to attack the women’s credibility. The report also highlighted the lack of accountability or even access to judges and prosecutors – none of them agreed to participate in the report in any way.
The precedents set in the cases of Sally Challen, Sara Thornton, Kiranjit Ahluwalia and more do not go far enough. Women who fight back in self-defence should not face murder or manslaughter charges, they should be given counselling and support to deal with the trauma they faced.
All victims of intimate partner violence should be treated with care and taken seriously, not traumatised a second time by the police and the justice system. Judges should be elected and held accountable for their actions.
Domestic violence shelters have had their funding cut repeatedly over more than a decade of austerity measures. Women cannot access the support they need to leave their abusive partners. All such services should be properly funded, and the labour movement should lead a campaign to ensure that they are.
The social factors that lead to and exacerbate sexist violence also need to be addressed. Misogynistic, patriarchal capitalism empowers rich men and disenfranchises working class women. Just as Malcolm X said “you can’t have capitalism without racism”, we say you can’t have capitalism without the oppression of women.
Domestic violence is not an issue that should be kept private, “behind the wall“. It is a social issue, it is a class issue and it is a trade union issue. The labour movement should take up the cause of women who are victims of domestic violence, and of those who have been wrongly convicted for the “crime” of defending themselves.
Socialist Alternative demands:
- Justice for all those convicted of fighting back against abusive partners! Open a public enquiry under the control of the community and women’s rights organisations, looking into all cases of women who have been convicted after defending themselves.
- Create fully funded and publicly run domestic violence services – no more austerity.
- We need a justice system that treats women with respect. No unaccountable police and unelected judges – give us democratic control over the police and justice system!
- Fight for a socialist world free of oppression and violence!