Crime analysis: What now for Helen Titchener? Abigail Bright, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, and Edward Grange, partner at Corker Binning, two practitioners in serious crime discuss and digest the legal implications of Sunday night’s episode of The Archers.
Listeners of The Archers on Sunday 3 April 2016 were privy to what may have been the murder of Rob Titchener by his articulate, educated, once independent wife. Improbably, it may be the first murder in sixty-five years of bucolic Ambridge village life. Sunday’s listener heard Helen tell Rob she was going to walk out on him and their relationship due to his controlling behaviour toward her. Rob permitted no such easy escape. Instead, he handed her a knife, telling her it was her ‘only way out’. A struggle ensued, Helen stabbed and, it appears, killed Rob, in front of Henry, the five year-old child of the family. What is Helen’s liability for prosecution and conviction in the wake of this latest plot development?
What are the likely consequences for Helen if she has dealt Rob a fatal blow?
Inevitably, Mrs Titchener, Helen, will be arrested for murder. She will most likely know that if convicted of murder she faces life imprisonment with a minimum term of twelve years. Will she be charged with murder? Before and during her interview by police, she will rely on the advice of the available duty solicitor at the police station to which she is taken (unless, Tom or perhaps Pat Archer is able to pay privately). In all the circumstances, Helen surely will be charged with murder rather than any other offence. Police have no reason to take a different course. Helen has never reported to the police Rob’s sustained controlling behaviour toward her. Police know nothing of how Rob’s studied campaign of control includes her rape by him, twice. She has never told police that Rob’s behaviour toward her in the last two years involved his physical and mental abuse of her. No one but Helen—save, perhaps, very recently indeed, Jess—knows that Rob’s controlling behaviour rendered her inert and incapable of escape. Helen’s near-complete isolation from family and friends has meant that no one, it seems, can evidence Rob’s oppression of her. The impact on Helen has gone all but unnoticed. She has been constantly undermined, criticised and prevented from seeing friends, going to work and even stopped from driving. If she has killed Rob, however, nothing Helen can hope to say in interview to the investigating officers will divert her from being charged with murder, even if she does tell police everything she has endured. On the facts presented to them—Rob fatally injured and Helen next to the weapon—police would have sufficient evidence to send to the CPS for them to authorise a charge of murder against Helen.
What, practically, will happen in the hours immediately following Helen being charged?
Shortly after Helen is charged with murder, she will be put before a magistrates’ court. At the magistrates’ court hearing, Helen’s case will be ‘sent forthwith for trial’ to the Crown Court. Helen will not be able to apply for bail pending trial when she first appears at the magistrates’ court, because any application for bail she may wish to make will only be entertained at the Crown Court, a week or so later. A Crown Court judge will not grant bail if there is substantial risk that Helen would commit further offences, interfere with a potential witness or fail to surrender. A judge may well take the view that the grant of bail would be a false kindness in all the circumstances of this particular case. Helen’s likely legal defences—either loss of control or self-defence—are both vulnerable to the prosecution persuading a jury that Helen has recently fabricated her allegations against Rob so as to save her own skin. Absent evidence at a trial other than Helen’s own word, either defence may fail if thought convenient exaggeration.
How can Helen defend herself against conviction for murder?
In principle, two defences are open to Helen—loss of control or else self-defence. Evidence tending to support one may support the other. While those two legal defences may overlap, importantly, each is a discrete defence. In practice, Helen will need to tell the court that tries her case, at the first reasonable opportunity, which defence it is that she seeks to rely on at a trial. For completeness, we should add that there is no evidence presently available, psychiatric or otherwise, to put in issue reliance on a third possible defence, diminished responsibility, which requires inability to form rational judgment.
Strategically, which defence should she rely on?
Self-defence, if proved, would result in Helen’s acquittal of murder. Self-defence in law is raised further to section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. It is, we think, Helen’s best prospect at a trial. Force used in self-defence must be necessary and reasonable. It must be proportionate. A jury would be directed that Helen was entitled to use reasonable force to defend herself or another—perhaps Henry, her son. She is not required to retreat or withdraw from a confrontation. She is not expected to weigh her use of force to a nicety. She is permitted reasonable latitude for error of judgment and mistake if the force with which she genuinely believed she met was not as she had thought it to be. Helen would need to give evidence in her own defence at a trial. Henry, aged five, would be interviewed by police with a view to whether or not he can help a jury with what happened. Cross-examination of Helen at a trial would focus on:
- who approached who first
- how that was done
- her and his demeanour, and
- their respective reactions
Ultimately, do a jury think Helen may have feared immediate violence against her or her son? Was her grabbing at the knife reasonable and proportionate in all the circumstances? Forensic evidence would be adduced about the fatal stabbing.
Loss of control is only a partial defence to murder. If proved, killing by means of loss of control results in a conviction for manslaughter. Unlike the sentence reserved for murder, there is no mandatory minimum sentence for manslaughter. Loss of control is a defence available pursuant to section 54 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, as amended by statutory instrument on 4 October 2010. The partial defence requires the loss of control to have a ‘qualifying trigger’, either caused by Helen’s fear of serious violence from Rob, to herself or another; or caused by things done or said which constituted circumstances of an extremely grave character, and which gave Helen a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged. To rely on loss of control, Helen must, before the trial starts, if she can, raise an evidential burden. She must do that on the balance of probabilities. What this means is that she must show it is more likely than not that her seeking to rely on loss of control is not fanciful and that there is sufficient evidence to ‘raise’ the defence such that it should be considered by a jury. Helen only has to raise the defence as properly in issue, and not prove it, but she will be advised that the prosecution is entitled to call evidence to disprove it. The prosecution will test in cross-examination any such defence, if and when it is raised, by asking Helen (for example) whether she recalls having threatened to kill Rob (as she did do). Helen’s legal defence may very well turn on how persuasively she answers that question. A concession or statement made by Helen before the jury that is against her interest may mean she loses her trial. A weighty consideration is that the prosecution would be able to call evidence to rebut that Helen really did lose control. Wouldn’t many of her neighbours in Ambridge undermine her defence of loss of control if called to say what they saw—a doting and devoted husband and expectant father, against whom no complaint was made?
Is what The Archers fans know of the background to the stabbing likely to come out at a trial?
The background to the intimate relationship between Helen and Rob is bound to occupy a significant part of the trial. Listeners surely know that Helen is a victim of psychological and physical abuse, including rape. The psychological abuse was ‘slow burn’—it was progressive and not immediate or readily apparent, either to Helen or to others. Kirsty, Helen’s friend, and so not an independent or an impartial witness, is perhaps the person who can best fit together for a jury the pieces of the true picture. Tom Archer may be able to help the jury, too. What might Jess say, having recently spoken with Helen about Rob, against the background of Helen and Rob both having deceived Jess? Any of those potential witnesses may be called either by the prosecution or the defence, depending on what evidence they are capable of giving. Other evidence may be available to the prosecution and defence, including text messages exchanged between the two and others, emails, and so on.
On the available evidence, would the prosecution entertain a plea of guilty to manslaughter?
Prospects of acquittal if tried for murder?
This article was originally published by LexisNexis Family Law.