A woman who phoned police and told them she had just killed her husband was sentenced last week after pleading guilty to attempted murder.
Charity Smith, now 50, was sentenced to three years probation with supervision by mental health and probation officers.
Acting Grand Court judge Mrs. Justice Margaret Ramsay-Hale said she took into account the fact that, although Smith struck her husband with the intention of killing him, the act was not premeditated and the injuries inflicted were so mild that he did not lose consciousness despite being hit in the head four times with a sledgehammer. The husband sustained minor lacerations that were closed with 20 stitches.
The judge said probation, rather than immediate custody, was the right sentence in light of the defendant’s mental illness, her husband’s abuse over the past 30 years and the fact that she had apprehended a threat of imminent violence on the morning in question.
Smith entered her guilty plea in April in relation to an incident that occurred at the couple’s home in October. Sentencing was adjourned so that a social inquiry report could be obtained.
According to facts outlined by Senior Crown Counsel Adam Roberts, the defendant phoned the police station, gave her address and said she had just killed her husband. When officers went to the premises they found her waiting on the side of the road.
When they went to the house they saw spots of blood outside. There was more blood inside and the husband was lying on a bed. He told officers his wife had hit him on the head with a maul. The officers found a sledgehammer with blood on it.
An ambulance took the husband to hospital, where he was treated for injuries that turned out not to be particularly serious. He said he did not wish to make any complaint against his wife.
Mr. Roberts said the defendant made complete and full admissions to what she had done and gave some of the history of the relationship. According to her own version of events, there was no immediate threat to her at the time she took the action; her husband was sitting on the doorstep drinking a beer.
Defence Attorney John Furniss said this was a very tragic case and one rarely seen. Many times it is the man before the court where there is a history of domestic abuse and domestic violence, he commented.
In this case, it appeared there had been complaints made against the husband. Police did come to the house and speak to him about his behaviour, but it was never pursued further.
Mr. Furniss thanked the social worker for a full and accurate account of the defendant’s history. He noted that she had married young and had four children by the time she was 20. The family lived in an area of West Bay that was not regularly traversed by the general public, so to that extent she had lived a very isolated life.
The husband had hardly worked over the past 20 years, causing great financial hardship on the defendant. What money he did earn was spent on liquor or drugs, Mr. Furniss said.
The defendant had suffered a nervous breakdown previously and was treated. She had contact with the Mental Health Unit in the 1980s and 90s. Because of the mindset she had, her situation was not something she would have been forthcoming about to authorities.
The judge and attorney both commented on the fact that the defendant and complainant were co-habiting a month after the incident, although this was in breach of a court order.
No danger of repetition
In passing sentence, Mrs. Justice Ramsay-Hale summarised Smith’s account of what had happened.
Smith said her husband had been on a drinking binge all night until about 2.30am. At 6am he started drinking again.
At 10.30 am, returning home from purchasing more liquor, he demanded that she open the bedroom door, which she had locked against him.
She told police, ‘I was afraid of him attacking me when he came back to the house because I was feeling sick with a bad headache and he always picks a fight with me.’ She said they fought every time he got a drink, which was every other day.
While he sat in the doorway, she admittedly struck him several times with the sledgehammer and later said it was because he was aggravating her and she was angry.
In an interview with the government psychiatrist, she said she felt stressed with her nerves and a light feeling in her head and felt she had no choice. She felt frightened and picked up the hammer and hit her husband.
The judge commented that, despite Smith’s professed intention, she was unable to produce injuries of any real significance.
The pre-sentence report had highlighted the family’s difficulties, she noted. The report was sympathetic to the wife of a man who had self-medicated with drugs and alcohol over the last 30 years and whose family had endured, in addition, the stress of unrelieved poverty as a result of his unwillingness or inability to work.
The marriage had been characterised by violence by the husband against the wife.
All of these things had been a source of continued emotional trauma and stress for Smith, who also suffered from significant mental illness characterised by psychotic features. There had been previous episodes of violence by her, but they did not extend beyond property damage.
The relationship stressors that precipitated those outbursts were no doubt the kind Smith described on the morning of the incident, the judge observed.
The doctor was also of the view that these outbursts were precipitated by Smith’s non-compliance with her medication. When she was compliant with medication, she was able to contain aggressive behaviours. Of course, she might still be provoked by a husband who was continually drunk and abusive.
Bearing all these facts in mind, the court had to decide what a suitable sentence would be.
Custody is ordinarily imposed where a violent attack is made on someone with an intention to kill. Custody is also ordinarily imposed where the court considers that someone with impaired mental capacity is a continued danger to the public.
‘There is no doubt that this case would have been one of diminished responsibility if there had been a homicide,’ the judge said. Although diminished responsibility does not apply in cases of attempted murder, the judge said she was entitled to take the defendant’s mental state into account when passing sentence.
Speaking directly to Smith, Mrs. Justice Ramsay-Hale said she had struggled with the statement of principle that says the judge, before releasing a defendant into the community, must be satisfied that there is no danger of repetition of violence.
What she had gleaned from the case file was that Smith was not an otherwise violent woman posing a threat to the community at large. It appeared from the record that Smith was a woman who had endured more than anyone should have to and the judge accepted that Smith’s response that morning, as violent as it was, was in large measure provoked.
The judge did not see Smith as representing a continued danger to anyone and the doctor concluded that Smith could be safely returned to the community if appropriately supervised to ensure that she was compliant with medical treatment.