by Charlotte Lomas, news correspondent, and Sanya Burgess, news reporter
The Court of Appeal is to hear a landmark murder conviction challenge by Sally Challen, who bludgeoned her husband to death with a hammer after decades of coercive control – a form of domestic abuse that strips victims of their liberty and freedom.
This is her story:
As Richard bent forward to eat the breakfast made by his wife, she grabbed a nearby hammer and hit him 20 times.
Sally then stuffed a tea towel in his mouth and wrapped him in old curtains.
Before turning to do the dishes, she wrote a note – ‘I love you, Sally’ – and placed it on the body.
She had just ended 31 years of marriage by violently attacking her husband in the kitchen of their £1m Surrey home.
Her son, David, testifies that the three decades his parents were together was not a marriage for his mother – it was a mental prison.
He says Sally, now in a physical jail, has always been trapped – and husband Richard held the keys.
“You just felt an undercurrent of abuse happening but you couldn’t see the abuse or the moments of it. It was a drip, drip, drip… and that’s what my mother suffered behind closed doors,” David explains, detailing the decades of coercive control his mother endured.
Sally, then 56, killed her 61-year-old husband on an August morning in 2010. Ten months later, she stood at the end of a seven-day trial and was sentenced to life imprisonment for his murder.
Eight years on, her case is to be appealed and will take in new evidence during a two-day hearing starting Wednesday – in particular the impact Richard’s controlling behaviour had on Sally.
Coercive control became a criminal offence in 2015, which was too late for her first trial, but David hopes the criminalisation will help his mother this time round.
They are seeking to change her charge from murder to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.
Speaking to Sky News, David recalls having a nice, normal childhood.
Until the age of five, he says, he felt very loved but as he got closer to his teens that love began to “slip away” from his father.
“I could see his mind was elsewhere. There was something inherently bad I felt about him even at a young age.
“It was such a strange feeling to have, like morally in my gut I felt that he was corrupt in some sort of way.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it but it’s bizarre because when I reached my mid-to-late teens it started to become more open.
“When I heard he was cheating it was like we’d been waiting for that moment. It wasn’t a surprise.”
Sally worked to hide the troubles from her young children and focused on keeping the house running and supporting her husband’s business.
When David reached his teens he noticed his mum tracked his father, keeping a note of his phone records, where he was going, who he was meeting.
It became clear Richard was relentlessly – and unabashedly – cheating.
He had multiple phones, used dating sites and was caught by Sally visiting a brothel.
David recalls: “The arguments started to get more vocal… and more and more abusive.
“He had a mantra… he would say ‘You’re going mad, Sally. You’re making it all up. You’re going mad.'”
Sally eventually confided in her son, telling him that at times she did question herself. Was it all really in her head? Was she going mad?
This behaviour is a textbook example of gaslighting.
Relate, the relationship support charity, say gaslighting is trying to convince someone they’re wrong even when they aren’t.
They explain it is dangerous “because it undermines a person’s sense of self-belief” and is used by abusers to train their partner not to challenge them and to feel less confident.
Richard would tell Sally what she could eat, wear, where she could go, that she was going mad, that she was getting fat – calling his petite wife “thunder thighs”.
The abuse was not solely psychological – Sally has told her lawyer of Richard dragging her down the stairs and of rape.
David knew this behaviour was wrong and that this was what relationships were like. Yet, he didn’t know how to verbalise what his father was doing to his mother.
“What can I use as the tangible term? There was no law against psychological abuse at that time. It only came in in 2015. It’s still not understood now,” he says.
David argued and argued and argued with his father. He brought up that this behaviour was wrong countless times but Richard was “like Teflon”.
“You just couldn’t land a punch. It was the most frustrating thing. We all tried to stop him but there was no power in the law to do anything about him.”
“Everyone that’s had an argument with him [knows] it’s impossible. And for a woman that’s been with him for 40-plus years*, to have been up against that.. I mean, I would have lost the plot,” David says.
Many people reading this will wonder why Sally didn’t leave. It is a question asked of many women and men who are victim of domestic abuse.
Sally did try to leave. She tried many, many times – to the point her lawyer commented no previous client of theirs had stopped and started divorce proceedings so often.
She had managed to use her inheritance to buy a new home and to move David in with her, while her other son left to move in with his girlfriend.
You just felt an undercurrent of abuse happening but you couldn’t see the abuse or the moments of it. It was a drip, drip, drip… and that’s what my mother suffered behind closed doors
But Richard seeped back into Sally’s life. She asked him to take her back.
The morning Sally killed Richard she had returned to their marital home in Claygate to spend time with Richard in a joint attempt to reconcile their marriage.
He asked her to get food for breakfast from the shops. She felt suspicious – was Richard trying to get her out the house deliberately?
She returned and checked his phone. He’d made a call to a woman Sally knew Richard had met on a dating site.
He refused to explain, finally reprimanding her: “Don’t question me.”
Sally maintains she doesn’t remember what happened next.
“We don’t justify it,” David says of his mother’s actions.
“She is serving time for a crime. She will serve time for that crime.
“But that crime needs to be judged properly. She’s not vengeful, she’s not jealous, she was psychologically manipulated and that is what coercive control is.”
When Sally asked to rekindle their marriage, Richard had responded by demanding a postnuptial agreement, stripping Sally of most of the financial assets she was due and humiliating her by demanding in writing that she would never interrupt him and to ban her from smoking.
Sally, so dependent on Richard, came close to signing this document.
“She didn’t know how to survive in a world without him,” David says.
“He was her oxygen and he made it that way. He controlled the world around her at a young age.”
Richard met Sally when he was 22 and she was 15. Sally’s father had died when she was five.
“My father was that male authority [figure for her]. He designed the world around what he thought it should be for her and that was him,” David says.
Two weeks before his mother killed Richard, David began to feel that something was amiss and started to worry about Sally’s movements.
When he would tell his mum she shouldn’t be with Richard, Sally would shut him off.
The day David, then 23, found out what happened, his mother dropped him off at work in the morning.
“You know I love you, don’t you David?” his mum said, looking him in the eyes as he stepped out the car.
“I love you too,” he replied. Something was odd – but he turned and went to work.
Hours later, he was told his father had been murdered.
“I look in the mirror and I see his face. I still love my father and I love my mother,” David says.
David did not reflexively jump to his mum’s aid.
“[I] looked long and hard at what happened. I identified my dad’s body. I’ve taken in everything that she’s done – and I have to acknowledge that he’s helped abused her from the age of 15 to 56. He’s contorted and twisted her mind. Gaslighted her. Made her question her reality multiple times.”
David says he’d love to be able to say his mum was doing fine, but she is in prison. It just gets worse for her.
“It’s the sadness of a person that is so loving and caring and meek and mild, who’s tried to live her life in the best way and be a supportive wife.
“She’s been endlessly abused for such a long period of time.”
His mother went on a programme during her first year on remand and learnt about control and power.
She came out “wide-eyed”, realising that had been her life for three decades, David says.
Regardless, David says his mother is still in love with Richard.
“She still loves him and that sounds bizarre but that’s coercive control. She was designed to love one man from the age of 15 to 56. It’s deep.”
As her appeal approaches, David, his brother and mother are hopeful – can they reclaim the next ten years of her life currently assigned for her to spend in jail?
If they fail, she will be in her mid-70s when she is finally freed.
David fervently believes you can’t begin to understand domestic violence without understanding coercive control. He describes his mother as being victim to an extreme case of coercive control.
“This is a landmark, watershed moment in domestic violence.
“If you miss this moment then god help us all because you’re condemning so many victims right now to remain silent.
“It’s so hard to spot domestic violence. It’s so hard to spot coercive control.
“The police can’t do it by themselves there needs to be awareness from the greater public and people themselves towards each other.”
The day after killing Richard, Sally travelled to Beachy Head intending to kill herself.
She stopped because she could not leave David and his brother behind.
If she is released, David says his mother will be free – truly free – for the first time in almost 40 years.