UK

Domestic violence killings reach five-year high

Mary Annie Sowerby, Aliny Godinho, Elize Stevens, Alison Hunt, Asma Begum and Dorothy Bowyer
Image caption Criminologist Prof Sandra Walklate believes these women are all 'invisible victims of knife crime'

The number of people killed as a result of domestic violence in the UK is at its highest level in five years.

Last year, 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides, according to data obtained by the BBC from 43 police forces across the UK - an increase of 32 deaths on 2017.

One criminologist described them as "invisible victims of knife crime".

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government was "fully committed" to tackling domestic abuse.

Whilst both men and women are killed by domestic violence, the vast majority of victims are women.

In England and Wales, between April 2014 and March 2017, around three-quarters of victims of domestic killings by a partner, ex-partner or family member were women, while suspects are predominantly male.

Domestic violence-related homicides

Data from 43 UK police forces

Source: BBC research

Stabbed by her ex-boyfriend on New Year's Day, Charlotte Huggins began 2019 like many across the UK, drinking in a pub and celebrating with friends.

Hours later, her ex-boyfriend Michael Rolle barged into her south London home while her daughter and aunt slept upstairs.

Rolle had spotted Ms Huggins with another man and in a "jealous rage" stabbed her in the back with a large kitchen knife.

He fled the scene and later argued Ms Huggins had fallen on the knife. In July, an Old Bailey jury convicted him of murder.

Image copyright Met Police
Image caption Charlotte Huggins was one of the first people to be stabbed to death in London in 2019

Despite a public debate about rising levels of knife crime, Ms Huggins's murder attracted little attention when it came to trial.

Liverpool University criminologist Professor Sandra Walklate is keen to point out the weapon used commonly in street murders is equally prevalent in the home.

"That's part of the issue about violence against women, it mostly remains invisible."

The BBC has been following the first 100 killings of 2019. The vast majority of cases have now had charges and many have come to trial over the summer.

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About a fifth were committed by a partner, an ex-partner or a family member.

Victims include 69-year-old Mary Annie Sowerby who was repeatedly stabbed in the neck and chest by her son Lee in Cumbria; and Alison Hunt, who was knifed 22 times by her ex-boyfriend Vernon Holmes in front of her 16-year-old child.

One of the most shocking killings occurred in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

Julian Giraldo woke up on 13 January with a premonition something bad was going to happen. He tried for hours without success to call his parents on the phone.

He was aware of problems in their 17-year marriage but had no idea what was happening as he struggled to get through.

His father Rodrigo Giraldo, a former Colombian police officer murdered his wife, Margory Villegas, in the presence of their newly fostered baby. The 55-year-old then drove to a local beauty spot where he set her body alight, placed the remains into a suitcase, and then buried it in a shallow grave.

Despite his denials, the evidence against him was overwhelming, leading to his conviction and subsequent life prison sentence.

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Media captionJulian Giraldo read out a victim impact statement after his father was convicted of murdering his mother

As with many other such cases, the killer had a history of domestic abuse.

Julian, who appeared as a witness at the trial, told St Albans Crown Court his mum was someone who "gave her entire life for her family."

Speaking to the BBC in a local park he said: "My dad needs to take ownership for his what he's done.

"He's always been a victim of his own realities. Right now he's living his choices."

Mr Giraldo believes the murder was the culmination "of lots of little tiny things that over time create the situation."

"I am on a quest for personal development for myself, for my family, for my community," he says. "I want to prevent this moment from occurring to other people."

He said: "We want the government to fix all our problems. But I think realistically, what we actually need to do is work collectively as a community to create better things."

Image copyright West Midlands Police
Image caption Gary Cunningham was stabbed to death by his girlfriend Olivia Labinjo-Halcrow in Birmingham in February 2019

Last year, there were 173 domestic killings, making it the highest figure since 2014, according to data supplied to the BBC by 43 police forces in the UK. There were 165 in 2014, 160 in 2015, 139 in 2016 and 141 in 2017.

The increase comes despite a major government effort to tackle domestic violence.

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Media captionChiyvonne Shennan said her sister Cherylee had been unaware of her boyfriend's violent history

Theresa May made it a high priority when she was home secretary and the ex-prime minister hopes the newly approved domestic abuse laws will provide something of a legacy.

Boris Johnson confirmed the government will introduce a new bill aimed at tackling the "horrific crime" of domestic abuse when Parliament returns.

Government minister Victoria Atkins also pointed to the introduction of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme - known as Clare's Law - which lets people find out from police if their partner has a history of domestic violence.

"These tragic cases are a stark reminder of the devastating impact of domestic abuse and we are determined to do more to protect victims and bring more perpetrators to justice," she added.

However, Prof Walklate argues successive governments have placed too much emphasis on reforming the criminal justice system.

"What might change behaviour is to ensure that police forces, health services, education, social services all speak from the same hymn sheet in relation to violence against women," she says.

"It is at that point at which you start to send out general messages that this is not tolerable."


Analysis

By Home Affairs correspondent Danny Shaw

In April 2018, the Home Office published its long-awaited strategy to tackle serious violence in England and Wales.

The policy paper acknowledged that a "significant proportion" of violent crime was linked to domestic abuse or alcohol but said neither was "driving" the increase. "That is why they are not the focus of this document," it added.

Instead, most of the effort from government, police and other agencies has gone into combating street-based violence, gang crime and county lines drug dealing.

No-one would argue they should not be priorities, as the recent wave of fatal stabbings of teenagers in London demonstrates.

But while the authorities concentrated precious resources on one type of violent crime, did that deflect them from bearing down on another?

There's no firm evidence to prove it, but these latest figures will act as a reminder of the importance of being alert to the pernicious, and often hidden, crime of domestic abuse.


Labour MP Jess Phillips, who campaigns on the issue of domestic abuse, agreed the government had focused too much on the criminal justice system, while police resources had been cut and there were fewer refuge beds available.

"If women trying to escape can't get into refuges, it doesn't matter how cracking the laws are we've made in Westminster," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"They do not help people on the ground."

Super-complaint

In March, the Centre For Women's Justice (CWJ) lodged a "super-complaint" accusing police of failing to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence.

CWJ's Nogah Ofer explained police already have powers, such as non-molestation orders, that are not being used enough and could halt the rise in domestic violence-related murders.

"Women have to go off and get orders in the civil courts," Ms Ofer says. "Then those orders are breached and the police don't do anything to arrest the suspects."

"We hear this all the time. There's this constant sense of frustration they're not being taken seriously."

The role of domestic abuse commissioner has been created to spearhead the campaign against the problem.

A job advert for the position was put out in December - but as yet, no-one has been appointed to the position.

However, it will already be too late for the family of Charlotte Huggins and dozens of other families affected by domestic violence.

For information and support related to domestic abuse, visit the BBC Action Line.

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