Mentally abused wife spent eight years in jail for killing husband

A loving facade, but for years she was belittled and kept like a slave: How Sally Challen, who spent eight years in jail for killing her husband, was driven to the hammer attack by him

As she waited to learn her fate at the Old Bailey yesterday, Sally Challen nervously paced up and down outside courtroom No5, stopping now and then to stare through a window at the sea of cameras waiting on the rain-drenched pavement outside.

The 65-year-old mother-of-two, who killed her husband Richard with a hammer blow to the head in 2011, has been in legal limbo ever since her murder conviction was overturned in February when a judge ruled she had suffered mental abuse throughout her marriage.

Dressed in a sombre black suit, Sally broke down in tears as she learnt that she will not face a retrial for killing the husband who subjected her to years of controlling and humiliating emotional abuse.

The extraordinary moment marked a legal landmark. Her tragic story has become a focal point for debate about the ‘coercive control’ law, engendered by the Serious Crime Act 2015, which recognised that a pattern of isolation, humiliation and domination could rob women of their lives as much as physical violence.

Dressed in a sombre black suit, Sally broke down in tears as she learnt that she will not face a retrial for killing the husband who subjected her to years of controlling and humiliating emotional abuse

Back in August 2010 when Sally hit her husband Richard over the head with a hammer more than 20 times while he ate the bacon and eggs she had just cooked him, such a law didn’t exist. 

After stuffing a tea towel in his mouth to make certain he wasn’t breathing, she wrapped his body in a curtain before washing the dishes and leaving the £1million marital home they shared in Claygate, Surrey.

The following day she gave her youngest son David a lift to work at a local restaurant and as he got out of the car, leaned over towards the passenger side and said: ‘You know I love you, don’t you?’

The significance of those words became clear just hours later when the police arrived at the restaurant to tell him his father was dead and his mother had been found at notorious East Sussex suicide spot Beachy Head where a chaplain spent several hours talking her away from the edge of the cliffs.

The 65-year-old mother-of-two (pictured with her husband), who killed her husband Richard with a hammer blow to the head in 2011, has been in legal limbo ever since her murder conviction was overturned in February when a judge ruled she had suffered mental abuse throughout her marriage

The following day she gave her youngest son David a lift to work at a local restaurant and as he got out of the car, leaned over towards the passenger side and said: ‘You know I love you, don’t you?’ Pictured is Richard Challen

Mrs Challen is said to have been dominated by her husband during their marriage and wasn’t allowed to have friends of her own, while her husband visited prostitutes

To the outside world it was a shocking case not least because the Challens appeared to be the perfect middle-class couple. Richard Challen owned a car dealership, while his elegant blonde wife worked as an office manager for the Police Federation.

At her 2011 murder trial at Guildford Crown Court, Sally was portrayed as a woman consumed by jealousy, found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

But behind this seemingly cold-blooded killing was a horrific tale of mental abuse at the hands of the older, domineering husband she first met when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl and he was a 22-year-old car dealer. 

She was immediately besotted with a man described by those who knew him as charming and charismatic. In the early years of their relationship, she used to call in at Richard’s flat after school to clean and cook for him, a pattern of subservient behaviour that continued once they were married.

As 31-year-old David put it last year: ‘Mum never had a chance to experience any other relationship or form any adult identity of her own. My dad – and the way he behaved – was all she knew.’

Mrs Challen is pictured with her sons David (right) and James (left) after she was freed from prison after eight years when her conviction was quashed earlier this year

Indeed, one of the most extraordinary aspects of this case is the way in which Sally’s sons, David and 35-year-old James, have thrown their support behind her while respecting their dead father’s memory.

‘We do not justify our father’s killing. We are seeking to stop the lie that our mother is a murderer,’ David said last year. ‘The verdict was the wrong one. She deserves justice. People need to understand that she killed my father not because she is a bad person but because he drove her to the edge.’

He and James witnessed countless incidents of emotional abuse, belittlement and humiliation when they were growing up. They remember the Christmas that their father bought himself a red Ferrari and paid for a photoshoot with two topless models while he perched on the bonnet. He framed the photograph and put it on the mantelpiece and sent the picture out to friends and family members as a Christmas card. Richard constantly criticised and belittled Sally for everything from her cooking to the way she raised their sons.

When he spoke to the Mail, David recalled an occasion when his father threw all the food in the bin before a dinner party because he decided he didn’t feel like being sociable that night. David said: ‘He was always putting my mother down and talking to her like she was nothing. It was horrific for us to witness. If someone commented that she looked like she’d lost weight, he would say, “You haven’t seen her without her clothes on.” As a young child I would hear him call Mum “thunder thighs”, and I could see it upset her. It made me feel disgusted by his behaviour.

‘If he was watching TV and we were talking, he’d just turn the volume up – and we weren’t allowed to use the TV when he wasn’t there because it would “waste its limited timespan”.’

Sally wasn’t allowed friends and was expected to devote herself to her husband. She wasn’t allowed to speak to other people when they went out socially or to leave the house without his permission or to see anyone on her own. Richard also controlled her finances. Sally’s sons were unaware of some of the most appalling aspects of the abuse. Once, after Richard saw Sally give a mutual friend a goodbye hug, he took her upstairs and raped her. On other occasions, she was forced to wash before having sex with him. Meanwhile, he was openly pursuing other women who he contacted on several mobile phones. Such behaviour made Sally paranoid. She began obsessively checking his phone bills.

Mrs Challen, pictured with her son David at a press conference this afternoon, said that she still loved her husband and he was ‘part of her life’

Mrs Challen and her family have always insisted she was suffering the effects of her husband’s controlling behaviour at the time of the killing. She is pictured with her husband

Once, after following him, she saw him enter a massage parlour yards from where she worked which she later discovered was staffed by trafficked women. She confronted Richard – as did David and James – but, according to David, his father would try to make her think she was losing her mind when she accused him of cheating. 

His mantra to her was: ‘You’re going mad Sally’. But when it came to Sally’s 2010 murder trial, Richard’s behaviour was deemed to be irrelevant. Although Sally was raped by her husband, she was not a victim of sustained and persistent physical violence.

The abuse she suffered was largely psychological, financial and emotional – and presenting that kind of experience as hard evidence in court is no easy feat. There were no medical records to draw from, only witness statements and emails between Richard and Sally. 

Complicating matters further, at the time of the killing, the couple were reconciling after a year-long separation and were planning to sell the marital home and take an extended trip to Australia. On the final morning of their 31-year marriage, Richard sent Sally out in the rain, insisting that he wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast. Suspecting that he wanted her out of the house for a reason, she checked his phone upon her return and discovered he had been speaking to a woman he had met on a dating website and had been cheating on her.

According to her own account, when she asked Richard to explain the call, he replied: ‘Don’t question me.’ It was the last conversation they had. At her original five-day trial at Guildford Crown Court, Sally’s legal team relied on a defence of diminished responsibility, hoping she would be found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. But Richard’s behaviour was deemed to be irrelevant and Sally’s lawyers believed it would look bad for them to ‘speak ill of the dead’.

From the moment she was convicted of murder and sentenced to 18 years in jail, her sons devoted themselves to getting her conviction overturned. The family contacted Justice For Women, a feminist law reform campaign group which supports women who have killed their partners as a response to domestic violence.

Her case was taken up by lawyer Harriet Wistrich, a champion for women’s rights, but it was not until coercive and controlling behaviour was criminalised in 2015 that she found the key to Sally’s release. ‘In a sense it’s like fresh evidence,’ Miss Wistrich said four months ago. ‘The fact a law has been passed illustrates an advancement in our understanding of the dynamics of an abusive relationship.’

In February 2019, the Court of Appeal quashed Sally’s conviction and ordered a retrial based on fresh evidence from a psychiatrist that she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing brought on by her husband’s abuse. It was described as a ‘watershed moment for victims of domestic violence’.

In April, Sally was freed from HMP Bronzefield in Surrey. Yesterday’s dramatic announcement that she will not face a retrial perhaps draws a line under her ordeal once and for all.

But possibly the greatest irony of all is that, despite becoming a feminist cause celebre, Sally still grieves her husband’s death and admits missing him.

Speaking in 2010, she told police: ‘I felt without Richard I was worthless, I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t cope. I loved him and he was part of my life, part of me. My whole identity was built up as a part of a couple. I just couldn’t exist separately. I still think about Richard all the time, every night.’

For while Sally Challen’s ordeal may have shaped legal history, above all her agonising story belongs to her and her sons. Now that their ordeal is over, they could be forgiven for wanting to put it behind them and rediscover something resembling a normal life. 

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