Men are inventing new excuses for killing women and judges are falling for them | Catherine Bennett

Sam Pybus claimed his fatal act was consensual, and was given just four years in prison

Although it takes some ingenuity to kill a woman and face no penalty whatsoever, the justice system continues to ensure that, for the right killing, in the right circumstances, the punishment – given the right judge – could still be a fraction of what you might expect.

Earlier this year, for instance, the five-year term for a man who blamed strangling his wife, Ruth Williams, on lockdown difficulties, confirmed that being married to your victim may actively – perhaps counterintuitively – heighten judicial compassion. Judge Paul Thomas thought Anthony Williams’s mental state must have been severely affected, though this was contradicted by a psychiatrist. The court of appeal refused to increase the sentence.

A shorter or sporadic relationship with the victim also offers hope. In May, Warren Coulton came before Judge Simon Picken for the manslaughter of Claire Wright. She had been asphyxiated in an episode of bondage during which her reluctance was recorded. Coulton, not seeking medical help, left her body for discovery by hotel staff. He got six years.

Yet more mercifully, you might think, Sam Pybus was last week sentenced to four years eight months for killing his intermittent sexual partner, Sophie Moss. She was 33, the mother of children aged five and six. In a victim statement, her brother James said: “We will never be able to shake the belief that whatever the nature of their relationship, and her role in it, that she was a victim, taken advantage of and exploited, and was subjected to an entirely avoidable and infinitely tragic end.” Its impact on the judge is presumably reflected in his sentencing.

Pybus, who was married, had driven to see Moss after drinking 24 bottles of lager, strangled her when they were having sex and, after finding her dead, waited in his car for 15 minutes before driving to a police station. Paramedics, when they were finally called, could not resuscitate her. Pybus claimed the choking had been consensual and that he did not remember killing Moss; the Crown Prosecution Service found there was insufficient evidence to prove he intended to kill her. A manslaughter conviction still carries a possible life sentence.

What remains bewildering, even given the grand judicial tradition of sympathy towards men who hurt or kill female partners, is how Judge Paul Watson settled on a four-year sentence. You could easily conclude that unprovable claims about women’s sexual behaviour can still offset, at least in the average judicial mind, male culpability for extreme violence, callousness and recklessness.

The four-year sentence is less, it has been pointed out, than Moss’s killer might have received for causing death by dangerous driving. It is shorter than those recently imposed on men for accidentally killing other men in pub fights. In fact, if the government fulfils its eye-catching scheme to treat pet abduction as an especially harmful property crime, which already carries a maximum seven-year term, the sentence could be dramatically less than a thief soon receives for taking somebody’s cockapoo.

Harriet Harman has asked the attorney general to consider whether the sentence was unduly lenient. The sentence fails, she wrote, to reflect the gravity of Moss’s killing and the criminal’s “cynical shifting of the responsibility from himself to her”, while sending out “the message that killing your girlfriend during sex is a minor matter”. The attorney general has confirmed that the sentence will be reviewed.

That this should be required so soon after politicians from across parties attempted to halt, via changes to the new Domestic Abuse Act, increasing defendant recourse to “rough sex” claims, suggests celebration over this victory may have been premature.

In fact, although Pybus killed Moss before the act took effect, it is unclear it would have made any difference, it being already established that a person cannot consent to their serious harm or killing. Nor can the wish for murder charges in such cases make this happen if the prosecution can’t prove intent. Also unaffected by the Domestic Abuse Act, Pybus’s short sentence constitutes, as Harman says, an actively harmful, trivialising statement on male violence against women. If it is not increased, maybe it, rather than government’s restatement of existing law, should be understood as the official response to demands for justice by the admirable campaigning group We Can’t Consent to This.

Nothing, anyway, from the Pybus judge, seems likely to diminish the popularity of “rough sex” as just the latest euphemism whereby a case of male violence can be portrayed as something other than part of a relentless, gendered pattern. Women may sometimes agree to participate in the risky, coercive sex now depicted in mainstream pornography: they are the only ones who seem to die in it. In her important new book, Feminism for Women, Julie Bindel argues that old-style sexual assault is now dressed up by men as “sex-positive” experimentation. It spares them, she says, “the cognitive dissonance of apparently believing that ‘consent matters’ while proceeding on the basis that ‘no’ means ‘convince me’”.

Pybus’s short sentence, which took into account expressions of “genuine” remorse, and an early guilty plea, could be seen as just a different expression of the misogyny that has encouraged defendant allusions to “rough” – as in potentially lethal to women – sex. Certainly, it also contributes to a culture deeply desensitised to the culling of women by male partners. Although less so, it turns out, to its rare opposite. Justice for Women draws attention to Emma-Jayne Magson’s recent minimum 17-year sentence for the murder of her abusive boyfriend, who was – like the women above – deprived of medical attention. The judge, Jeremy Baker, regretted her lack of remorse.

Many of us feel the same way, funnily enough, about judicial behaviour over the years. Are any judges even a tiny bit sorry for the way their colleagues have indulged male violence against women? Right up to last week? It’s not too late to ask for it to be taken into account.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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