We either try to explain their crimes or excuse their crimes
When Janbaz Tarin killed Raneem Oudeh and her mother Khaola Saleem in Solihull in 2018, his crime was described as ‘savage and cowardly’ by West Midlands Police.
When Lucy-Anne Rushton was killed by her husband Shaun Dyson in 2019, Dyson was described by the sentencing judge as having a ‘jealous, controlling and violent’ nature.
When Aaron McKenzie stabbed his ex-girlfriend Kelly Fauvrelle to death (which also led to the death of her unborn baby), he was described as ‘jealous’ and his attack was described as ‘vicious and cowardly’.
And when David Pomphret killed his wife Ann Marie in 2018, he was described as a ‘quiet man who finally snapped’.
Every single description of the murders above attributes a man killing his partner or ex to one of two reasons: one is his innate personality and the other is mitigating factors which could have caused him to act out. It might not seem so strange at first – often when we learn of a crime, we want to understand the motivations behind it.
But when Lance Hart killed his wife and daughter in 2016 after the breakdown of their marriage, Max Pemberton, writing in the Daily Mail, described what he’d done as a ‘twisted act of love’ and even called it understandable. Lots of Hart’s neighbours testified as to how ‘nice’ he’d been.
But is being ‘jealous’ by nature really a motivation for taking a knife to someone else? Is being upset by a relationship breakdown really a reason to kill your ex? Or is it really the case that ‘just snapping’ can excuse and explain murdering your partner?
I don’t think these ‘reasons’ can ever really be reasons. Perpetrators of crimes like femicide are rarely acting on a lone motivation. They don’t suddenly kill as an emotional response to jealousy or misery. Killing one’s partner may often be the culmination of a campaign of emotional or physical tyranny – it is rarely a snap response.
And the same goes for when we describe perpetrators of such crimes as innately evil. Is it really the case that men like Janbaz Tarin and Aaron McKenzie have something within them that makes them disposed to commit such crimes? Or is it simply that they, like all of us, have been systematised to believe that women in this world have their place – and that they act upon that belief?
Let’s examine why we use descriptions such as those listed above more closely.
When we call perpetrators ‘savage’ or ‘evil’ we’re trying to explain their crime
Often, this explanation emerges through a process of attempting to differentiate these individuals from the rest of society.
If we speak of someone as ‘savage’, that almost seems to imply that they aren’t quite human.
Describing a murderer as ‘jealous, controlling and violent’ by nature also implies that the perpetrator possessed intrinsic characteristics that made them predisposed to commit their crime. It ascribes none of the responsibility for these characteristics to anyone but the perpetrator, and makes it harder for outside observers to see them as a ‘normal’ person.
But, of course, ‘normal’ people are the ones behind all these crimes. They may be violent and controlling, but they are highly unlikely to have been born with these traits.
They are products of the societies in which we all live, and while that does not free these individuals of personal responsibility for their actions, it certainly does tell us that we need to stop trying to Other these people and distance their crimes from normal human life.
Because while this distancing does allow us to condemn the crime, it doesn’t allow us to explore it properly. It puts the crime at arm’s length so that we can convince ourselves that it is too distant from ‘normal’ human life for us to successfully combat. Yes, Janbaz Tarin did something terrible and inexcusable, but he certainly did not act in a way that was somehow ‘super-human’ or unstoppable by human forces. He was known to police, and was known to be threatening to kill his ultimate victims. Not enough was done to help them. Those are the fundamental facts, not that Tarin was an incontrollable savage who would have been able to kill regardless.
When we call the murder of a woman by her partner ‘understandable’, we’re trying to excuse the crime
Max Pemberton has rightly come under a lot of scrutiny for describing Lance Hart’s murder of his wife and daughter ‘understandable’, but the fact remains that this was printed in a national newspaper.
But Pemberton’s attitude did not come out of nowhere. ‘Provocation’ as a defence for murdering one’s partner became inadmissible in 2010. This defence used to be used in a huge range of cases where a man had murdered his partner, and would often claim that he had been ‘provoked’ by either sexual infidelity or irresponsible behaviour in the marriage. Yet despite the fact that this defence is no longer legal, senior judges ruled in 2012 that ‘loss of control’ because of a partner’s infidelity could go some way towards rationalising a killer’s actions.
So Pemberton is not some lone voice of madness – our courts themselves seem to suggest that there can indeed be ‘understandable’ reasons for a person to kill their partner.
But why would we suggest this at all? Even if a woman does cheat on her husband, murdering her is hardly a proportional response.
Well, if we look more closely at the Lance Hart case, attempts by the media and neighbours to rationalise what he had done seem to be tied into descriptions of him as a ‘nice’ man. While his sons later assured the media that their father had always been a ‘tyrant’, there seems to be some attempt from wider society to convince people that while ‘nice-seeming’ people murder, they do so because there is a reason.
In fact, there are two things at play here. Describing Hart as a ‘nice’ man who had been unable to cope with the breakdown of his marriage is certainly an attempt to rationalise the crime and excuse it away. But it is also an attempt to randomise the crime, to tell us that this sort of thing could never have been predicted or prevented because the perpetrator was too ‘nice’. Hart was by no means too ‘nice’ – and the fact is even seemingly ‘nice’ people can murder or behave violently – it’s about the system, not the individual.
These extreme ways of depicting perpetrators serve a single purpose
Depicting a perpetrator of violence against women as savage convinces us that there was nothing we could have done to stop his crimes. Regardless of intervention, someone ‘savage’ will inevitably commit their heinous crimes.
Depicting a perpetrator as ‘nice’ tells us that there was no way we could have predicted that perpetrator’s violent action. It convinces us that any violence against women is a snap action that may have a semi-legitimised cause – allowing us to again believe that we have no responsibility for the ensuing crime.
I think people like Janbaz Tarin and Aaron McKenzie are called ‘savages’ for a number of reasons. They are usually from a lower socio-economic background and may have had previous run-ins with the law. They are often men of colour who are younger and have been in a less stable or more short-term relationship with their victim.
Men like Lance Hart are painted as nice men who snap and they are more typically from middle-class backgrounds, with little known history of violence or criminal activity. They tend to be older, married men.
The classism and racism at play here should not be discounted. Ultimately, whichever way you look at it, a disservice is done to the victims of these crimes. But make no mistake, our characterisations of men who murder their wives both fail to get to the heart of the issue, and then create multiple further issues in and of themselves by depicting perpetrators in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes about race and class.