Like many people, I am dismayed at the verdict of manslaughter that has been delivered in the case of Timothy Brehmer, a police officer who killed Claire Parry.
Parry was killed after sending a text to Brehmer’s wife from his phone revealing that they had been having an affair. According to Brehmer, he then pushed Parry out of his car where they had been sitting, and in the ensuing ‘kerfuffle’, accidentally strangled her.
Claire Parry died from a brain injury caused by asphyxiation, and the post-mortem found that a bone had been broken in her neck.
I really don’t know why we find ourselves here once more. Causing someone to asphyxiate by strangulation takes a lot of force and pressure – it isn’t something that people can do ‘accidentally’. The broken bone in Parry’s neck is also testament to the fact that significant and sustained force was used.
Brehmer was acquitted of murder by a jury, and was sentenced to 10 and a half years in jail. Mr Justice Jacobs, who handed out the sentence, gave some explanation around his thinking.
“This is a case where I should sentence you on the basis you lost your self-control following the sending of the text message to your wife where the affair was revealed, rather than on the basis that you had no intention to kill or cause really serious harm”
He also said that the defendant only just met the ‘qualifying trigger’ for a loss of control defence, saying that Brehmer had a ‘justifiable sense of being wronged’ by Parry, as he should have been the one to tell his wife about the affair.
Now if any of this seems baffling, it’s because it is. ‘Loss of control’ is a disputed factor that often surfaces in murder trials – usually in trials where a man has killed a woman with whom he has been in an intimate relationship. ‘Loss of control’ has replaced what would once have been called described as ‘provocation’, a defence that was made inadmissible in 2010. ‘Provocation’ was previously used as a common defence in cases where men had killed their wives after finding out about their infidelity. The Coroners and Justice act of 2009 stipulated that in all killings that took place after 4 October 2010, infidelity should be disregarded.
But then in 2012, the Court of Appeal ruled that sexual infidelity could once again be taken into account in murder trials – to the extent where it could form part of a ‘loss of control defence’ and see a charge of murder downgraded to manslaughter. This does not mean that every case where an unfaithful partner was killed became tried as manslaughter, but simply that if the infidelity (and the circumstances surrounding it) reached a ‘qualifying trigger’, the killer could be found not guilty of murder.
Now, while Brehmer’s situation is different from the cases around which this ‘loss of control’ law typically centres, it is clear that the same principles were applied by the judge. The idea that Brehmer felt ‘wronged’ is a key factor in why his defence was allowed to meet the ‘qualifying trigger’.
Now it is understandable that Brehmer may have felt angry with Parry – anger is a normal emotion, and often justified in certain circumstances. But it is not understandable that Brehmer’s anger would ‘justifiably’ compel him to kill Parry. For the judge to have even suggested this is completely flawed. Emotions of anger should remain in the realm of the emotional and not the physical. But clearly in this case the sentencing judge has ignored that, and in doing so has lessened the severity of Brehmer’s crime.
And it is not just the legal terminology which is problematic in this case. If we come back to the fact that Parry was strangled, we see yet more issues surface.
‘Accidental’ strangulation has dominated headlines about violence against women this year. The murderer of British backpacker Grace Millane was jailed for life in February. Millane was a British backpacker travelling around New Zealand who was killed by manual strangulation during sex in 2018 by a man she had met on Tinder. Her killer’s defence was that he had been strangling her as part of a sex game which she had requested. Forensic evidence revealed that the killer had deliberately compressed Millane’s neck and that it had taken between five and ten minutes of strangulation for her to die. This was not an ‘accident’ but a cold and calculated murder.
Now while Millane’s murderer was found guilty, other killers who had strangled women had successfully used the ‘botched sex game’ defence to avoid convictions for murder. Fortunately, this defence was outlawed in June of this year.
Though Parry’s death did not take place in the context of a sex game, it is hard not to think of similar cases of death by strangulation which have been passed off as ‘accidents’. It is hard not to feel like the verdict in this case has turned back the clock on our understandings of how women are subjected to violence at the hands of men.
The vast majority of strangulation death victims are women. This hugely gendered crime, which often takes place in a sexual context, is also a particularly cruel one. It takes force, intent and consistency to enact. Though Timothy Brehmer has been acquitted of murder through a ‘loss of control’ defence, I would argue that it was only through a controlled and sustained desire to kill that asphyxiation occurred and led to the death of Claire Parry.
The verdict in Parry’s murder is disappointing on so many levels. Indications that Brehmer may have been manipulative and even emotionally abusive were not considered, and it seems that Brehmer’s explanations have been accepted far too easily, despite the fact that he initially lied to police.
We cannot and should not have to accept a state of affairs where the ‘accidental’ killing of women is normalised. Dead women should not be seen as having prompted a ‘loss of control’ in living men. A woman has lost her life because a man felt entitled to take it. A woman has suffered violence because a man ignored her emotions in favour of his. Though that is not what the verdict tells us, that is what has happened in the death of Claire Parry.
We have so much work to do.