The Case of Sally Challen
I was transported back to 1987! Of course, I had heard about this case and read about it. But I did not know all the facts of the case and I was struck with a sudden realisation, watching this documentary, that this so easily could have been me! But in 1987. I would have served 28 years in prison before the law was changed that made coercive control a crime! I would not have seen my eldest daughter grow up or be present when my grandchildren were born. I would not have had my youngest daughter at all!
I remember back around what must have been 1987 or thereabouts, laying in bed one night, awake. Watching my abusive ex husband sleep. I don’t recall that anything particular had happened that night or that week. But suddenly I was taken over by a strong urge to put a pillow over his head and suffocate him. Stop him from hurting me anymore. Stop him from telling me I was useless at everything I did and said. I did. I picked up one of my pillows and pressed it gently down over his head. He was always a heavy sleeper. I’m not sure how long I held it there. But until I heard him struggling to breath. I’ve always thought of it like an out of body experience. I can’t really explain it. It was like I was looking down on myself doing it but was unable to stop. Something did stop me though and when he started to gasp, I pulled the pillow back quickly, back under my head and closed my eyes. I became aware that he was awake and startled but not sure what happened. He thought I was asleep and eventually, I heard him gently snoring again. Another few seconds was all it would have taken………..
This documentary is a powerful insight into the life of Sally Challen, a woman convicted of murdering her husband. She spent 9 years in prison. With the unwavering support of her two son’s and Harriet Wistrich (Justice for Women), she won the right to appeal her conviction and 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.
I felt this was a very well put together, thought out documentary which did not shy away from the societal beliefs and myths around domestic abuse, in any of its forms. Very early on in the programme, a family friend spoke about how men in Claygate had the general view “Put your hammers away lads”! followed by what could have been embarrassed laughter. However, living in Surrey, as I do, I have long since been familiar with the comment – “domestic abuse doesn’t happen in Surrey”!!
I was struck by how Sally’s brothers presented as still being somewhat bemused by the whole situation. Each of them were asked in turn whether Sally had ever spoken to them about it or what she had done. Each of them answered “No, never”. But I wonder if this is really that surprising? At some point during their marriage, Richard Challen sent out Christmas cards to family, friends and colleagues of him sitting on a sports care alongside two naked women. One of Sally’s brothers commented on the programme that he did find this rather strange. Assuming no one questioned why he would think it was ok to do this, can we really be surprised that Sally didn’t tell anyone?
David Challen spoke about him not understanding that what his mother was experiencing was abuse and that he did not know the extent of the abuse until after his father died. But that one thing he did know, was that his father treated his mother horribly. He is not alone. Most people before 2015 did not understand that abuse was anything other than being ‘beaten up’. Rape within marriage, although made a criminal offence in the very early 1990’s, is still not considered by many as abuse. David Challen, and his brother, would have grown up witnessing this abuse and not understanding the impact it was having on their mother. That is not their fault. There was a serious lack of intervention and support for child witnesses of domestic abuse back then. There are more now, but still not enough in my opinion.
Sally Challen spoke throughout the programme only to read out some of her witness statement, and at the end which I found to be the most powerful part of the whole documentary. She is in a church and says she finds it peaceful. That she thinks about Richard and how much she misses him. You see, she didn’t want to kill him. No woman ever wants to do that. Most women don’t want their abusive partners to go to prison. All we ever want is for them to STOP!
If you missed the documentary on BBC2 last night (9th December 2019) at 9pm and you don’t manage to see it on demand, I have added it to my video page on my website. See link below. I have also placed a link below from the Justice for Women website, which summarises Sally’s case.
To watch the documentary – CLICK HERE.
For information about Sally’s case – CLICK HERE.