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Home News Joanna Simpson was murdered by her husband, who then buried her after beating her. Why is he being released?
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Joanna Simpson was murdered by her husband, who then buried her after beating her. Why is he being released?

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Brown was returning their two children, nine and 10, after a half-term visit. They ran inside to the family room, leaving their parents in the hallway, where Brown took a hammer he’d packed in the children’s bag and bludgeoned Simpson repeatedly. (Their daughter said she heard “bang, bang, bang” as the blows fell.) There were injuries on Simpson’s hands and her arms where she’d defended herself, fractures and double fractures on her eyes and cheeks, her nose and skull. Brown then lifted her body into the back of his Volvo, covered her in plastic sheeting and returned to the house to disconnect the phone, remove the CCTV system, then collect the children. As they drove away, their son asked if Brown was “taking Mummy to hospital”. Instead, Brown dropped the children back at his home with his current partner, grabbed some items from the garage – duct tape, forensic overalls, plastic overshoes – and drove onwards to Windsor Great Park.

Here, he had already dug a deep grave to the precise dimensions of a large garden box. That box lay beneath the earth, lined with plastic sheeting to prevent seepage. Brown bent Simpson’s wrapped body into that box, fastened it and covered it with soil.

Given these facts, this true-life horror, it isn’t surprising that in May 2011, when Simpson’s family and friends gathered at Reading Crown Court for Brown’s trial, they expected a murder conviction and a life sentence. Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, who counted Simpson as her closest friend, was one of more than 20 who had come forward as witnesses, to speak for Simpson and present a picture of escalating abuse culminating in domestic homicide. “No matter how devastating it was, we thought, ‘Thank goodness there’s all this evidence. There’s no way he’ll get away with it’,” she says. Instead, Brown was found not guilty of murder and pleaded guilty to manslaughter with diminished responsibility. He is entitled to automatic release in November, without parole or any risk assessment.

Brown’s trial is just one example of the very low status ascribed to domestic homicides by our criminal justice system – in the words of leading defence barrister Clare Wade KC, “They’re right at the bottom of the pile.” In 2021, Wade was commissioned to conduct an independent review of domestic homicide sentences – which in this case means murders or manslaughter committed by current or previous partners. They overwhelmingly involve men killing women. In the Home Office Homicide Index 2011-2020, male perpetrators accounted for 87% of killings in this category.

The review was commissioned partly in response to a campaign by two bereaved families. Poppy Devey Waterhouse, 24, sustained more than 100 injuries in a slow, brutal attack by her ex-partner Joe Atkinson. He was sentenced to life for murder, with a minimum term of 15 years, 310 days. Ellie Gould, 17, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Thomas Griffiths. He strangled her, then stabbed her at least 13 times – his sentence life with a minimum term of 12 years and six months. For the victim’s families, the injustice was clear. If these murders had taken place outside the victim’s homes, the sentences could have been 10 years longer, as there are higher penalties if a killer takes a knife to the scene rather than lifts one from the kitchen drawer. And women are far more likely to be killed at home. Between 2017 and 2019, three-quarters of female victims in England and Wales were murdered at home – for male victims, it was less than half.

At present, our murder sentences stem from Section 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. “It’s frozen in the 2000s, a very outdated bit of law,” says Wade. There’s the full-life tariff for cases of “exceptionally high seriousness” such as terrorism, multiple killings or some sadistically or sexually motivated crimes. Next comes the 30-year tariff for murders of “particularly high seriousness”, including “murder for gain”, murder involving a firearm, the murder of a police officer or one motivated by hate against a “protected characteristic” (being a woman isn’t one of them). The 25-year tariff was added in 2009 due to rising concerns around knife crime, and covers murders where a knife or other weapon has been taken to the scene. And then there’s the 15-year tariff for all the rest – the “normal murders”. (All these sentences can be increased or reduced by aggravating and mitigating factors.)

The two women killed every week in the UK usually fall under “normal murders”, the lowest level of seriousness. They have been treated like one-off random killings in “volatile relationships”, homicides sprung from an affair or jealous rage, a messy divorce or petty row. (See Thomas McCann, who murdered and dismembered his wife Yvonne because she forgot to freeze a bag of chips. In March 2021, he was sentenced to life, with a minimum term of 12 years 182 days.) “We know much more about domestic homicides than we did in the 2000s,” says Wade. “We now know about the way coercive control works. These killings are not ‘situational’. We are not talking about a ‘relationship gone wrong’. In many of these, there is a pathological need to control the other party. If you look at the history, you will see a pattern, a template, where the inevitable concomitant of extreme coercive control is killing.” Those behaviour patterns will be evident in a perpetrator’s previous relationships and in future ones too. “Unfortunately, to a large extent in sentencing and murder law, that’s still not understood,” says Wade.

To Barkworth-Nanton, who attended all of Robert Brown’s trial, the attitude that this was a low-status case, a “relationship gone wrong”, was evident from the start. Even though Brown had taken a weapon to the scene – which could elevate it to a higher sentence – the fact that he’d used it to kill his estranged wife in her home during a stressful divorce somehow conspired to create a lesser level of scrutiny. “We were told it would last six to eight weeks,” says Barkworth-Nanton. “It took eight days. The 20-plus witnesses who knew Jo and the history of that relationship were cut right back to two.”

The trial for the murder of Joanna Yeates took place just a few months later – Yeates, 25, had gone missing in Bristol after a night out and been murdered by someone she didn’t know. “That trial was much longer; they took the jury to the grass verge where her body was dumped. They didn’t cut any corners – and quite rightly,” says Barkworth-Nanton. “Brown’s jury should have been taken to Jo’s house and seen where the children had been when their mother was killed. They should have seen how much Jo had tried to protect herself – the cameras, the lights, the alarms – and they categorically should have been taken to the place he buried Jo. It was a key part of the whole thing.”

Simpson had married Brown, a BA pilot, in February 1999, after a whirlwind romance. It had been unhappy from the start – she had called her mum from her honeymoon saying she’d made a “terrible mistake” as Brown was so rude to hotel staff. Within weeks, though, she was pregnant and committed to making it work.

Many friends, including Barkworth-Nanton, had witnessed Brown criticising Simpson – her cooking, her parenting. “He was constantly putting her down,” she says. “He was never pleasant to be around.” One friend had reported him to police for cycling towards her and her children at speed, only veering away at the last second. He monitored Simpson’s movements when he was away on flights, using the burglar alarm to check what time she got home or went to bed. In July 2007, the marriage ended and the following month, Simpson applied for a non-molestation injunction against him. Her signed statement describes Brown’s increasingly frightening behaviour as the marriage was breaking down. One time, he had called from Hong Kong and told Simpson he was having “dark thoughts”. Another time, he had taken “a very large carving knife” from the drawer and held it to her chest, gripping the back of her neck with his other hand.

Brown had given an undertaking to stay away from the house for six months, which was then extended by another six. In the months after, the CCTV Simpson had had fitted stopped working because the cables were cut. The security lights stopped working as those cables were cut too. As part of the divorce proceedings, Brown supplied a list of credit card transactions that revealed the purchase of spy equipment. When Simpson’s solicitors asked what this was for, Brown admitted that he’d bought a tracking device to put on his wife’s car. For three years, their divorce dragged on, ostensibly over the family home – which Simpson had bought as a wreck with trees growing through the ceiling and renovated four years before meeting Brown. It seemed likely that she would win the case. “I spoke to Jo an hour before she was killed and she was really down,” says Barkworth-Nanton. “Even though the divorce hearing was a week away, she felt it wasn’t going to end there. She was sure he’d find something else, another battle, like custody of the children.”

The jury learned almost none of this. The night before she was killed, Simpson was working on her divorce statement. (“I consider him to be controlling, intimidating and a bully,” she wrote.) “We begged the prosecution barrister to bring it into court – it was her talking, it was the whole history of the marriage,” says Barkworth-Nanton. The barrister declined. His response, she says, was, “Trivia, trivia, trivia!”

Instead, a great chunk of the trial was taken up by Brown’s own account. “He was charming, he cried, he got the jury’s sympathy,” says Barkworth-Nanton. “He was the airline pilot trusted with the safety of hundreds of passengers. If he’d been able to wear his uniform, he would have. The whole stance of his evidence was that Jo was a rich bitch who had led him to do this.”

Brown claimed that Simpson had “railroaded” him into marriage, that with Simpson, “everything he did was wrong”, Barkworth-Nanton continues. “He said Jo had an affair – which wasn’t true – and now she was hiding money and taking him to the cleaners. He even said, ‘I knew there was a problem in my marriage when I didn’t get my usual birthday present.’ By that he meant a blowjob. There were so many times when he was talking that I was just shaking my head – yet he was never challenged. We asked the prosecution why. He replied that he was there to win a murder conviction for Joanna, ‘not a popularity contest’.”

The prosecuting barrister has since been appointed as a judge. Approached by the Guardian, a representative of the courts and tribunals judiciary said: “Judges are never able to comment on cases they have been involved in, whether this is prior to their judicial career or heard as a judge.”

In court, Brown claimed that the stress of the divorce combined with other factors, including his new partner’s miscarriage, caused him to suffer an “adjustment disorder” – an emotional disturbance that interfered with normal functioning. This diminished responsibility for what he did. One psychiatrist backed him up; another said this was a “minor form of disorder”, very rarely linked to violence, and was not in keeping with such acts as dismantling the CCTV straight after the killing. “The jury had to decide which psychiatrist to believe,” says Barkworth-Nanton. “That’s bonkers.”

They chose to side with Brown, whose story they’d heard in such detail. “After the verdict, I can remember looking down and feeling like there was a big dark hole opening up that I was falling into,” says Barkworth-Nanton. At sentencing, the judge himself seemed to express doubts. “An adjustment disorder,” he said, “is a mild disturbance which rarely leads to outbursts of violence. In your case, it appears to have disappeared almost immediately after killing your wife.” He sentenced Brown to 26 years – but since this was for manslaughter, not murder, that sentence is “determinate”, rather than the minimum term that might accompany a life sentence. For Brown, this means that if he commits no further crimes, he can be automatically released halfway through with no risk assessment.

At the heart of this trial was a chasm where an understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control should have been. Barkworth-Nanton has spent the intervening years campaigning on these issues and is now chair of the domestic abuse charity Refuge (although she is not speaking on behalf of Refuge here). She is not convinced there has been much improvement, despite the fact that coercive control became a criminal offence in 2015, four years after Brown’s trial. “These ‘partial defences’ of diminished responsibility were introduced in the 1950s when we needed a defence to ensure that people who weren’t evil were not sentenced to death,” she says. “I’m of the view that they are now abused by men who kill their wives. They are effectively saying, ‘she drove me to it’ in various guises – and then it becomes a trial of the victim.” Partial defences are also used when men claim a partner died during “sex gone wrong”.

Clare Wade’s Domestic Homicide Sentencing Review was published in March. It has recommended training for all lawyers and judges around coercive control. It recommends that in cases where coercive control was exercised by someone who went on to commit domestic homicide, it should be a statutory aggravating factor in sentencing. In addition, if the homicide took place when the relationship was ending, if it involved strangulation or “overkill” (excessive or gratuitous violence, beyond that necessary to kill) these should be aggravating factors too.

In response, the government has agreed to make overkill and coercive control statutory aggravating factors – but, to Wade’s alarm, not to make coercive control a mitigating one for victims driven to kill their abuser.

For Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, it’s a start. “It’s certainly not ‘job done’, and it’s dangerous to assume so,” she says. She urges the creation of an automatic 25-year tariff for domestic homicides – with an explicit exclusion for victims of domestic abuse and violence.

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