The Archers’ long-running domestic abuse storyline has had listeners glued to and switching off their radios in equal measure. Played out in real time, it has been difficult listening. But now, finally, after three years, it’s coming to a head: Helen Titchener faces trial for stabbing her husband, Rob, twice on 4 April 2016.
Helen faces two charges: attempted murder of Rob and, if that count doesn’t stick, wounding with intent. The programme’s special “trial week” begins on Sunday. Should she be convicted of either offence, she could, in theory, receive life imprisonment, although the reality is likely to be closer to five to ten years’ custody. Helen has been in prison since her arrest, where she gave birth to her second son, Jack, in May.
The story has simmered for three years. We saw Rob manipulate Helen through their marriage and her pregnancy: he banned her from driving and working, isolated and gaslit her, culminating in the attack. While there was some physical abuse (Rob slapped Helen, and physically prevented her leaving him), the storyline has focused on the emotional abuse.
On the night of the stabbing, listeners heard Rob hit Helen, put the knife in her hand, and tell her to kill herself. When Henry, Helen’s five-year-old son, walked in and Rob made to grab him, Helen lunged at Rob, cutting his wrist, and stabbing him twice. He was later rushed to hospital, and survived.
Helen is arguing self-defence. That means the burden lies with the prosecution: they have to convince the jury that Helen wasn’t merely defending herself (or defending Henry, which would still count as self-defence), or that her actions went beyond reasonable force. Helen has to prove nothing. It is on the prosecution to discredit her. They will likely say she is an inconsistent witness, violent and unpredictable, and a liar.
We know Rob is both manipulative and outwardly charismatic. It’s hard to imagine that, in court, he won’t turn on the charm offensive.
Helen, by contrast, is understandably nervous. She has been reluctant to disclose the details of Rob’s abuse. As charities point out, this is a common response to abuse – but it can make a criminal defence tricky. She has not, for example, told her defence team that Rob has forced her to have sex with him.
A major problem for Helen’s defence is the repeated attack: she stabbed him twice. Did that second strike go beyond “reasonable force”, if Rob was already incapacitated?
Legally, killing Rob may actually have been better for Helen. Her lawyers would then have been able to argue loss of control, or diminished responsibility – both partial defences to murder, resulting in a conviction for manslaughter. With attempted murder or wounding, these defences aren’t available, and they will have a higher mountain to climb.
One of the most heartbreaking questions is what happens to Henry. He is, of course, a key witness to the incident – but alarmingly, he’s been living with Rob since Helen went to prison. The jury cannot take into account Henry’s welfare, though they will of course have to consider whether Helen believed Rob was about to attack Henry.
If the case is conducted properly, Henry will give his evidence via videolink. A pre-recorded video will stand as his evidence. Then he should be cross-examined with open, non-leading questions.
If Helen is convicted, the sentencing judge should take into account Helen’s young children and her relationship with them. Given the current sentencing guidelines, it’s extremely unlikely that she would avoid a custodial sentence. Permanent custody of the children will therefore depend hugely on the outcome of the trial.
The new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, introduced in 2015, will hopefully help people in Helen’s position in the future. It plugs gaps in current domestic violence law, criminalising the sort of insidious abuse that includes repeatedly putting a partner down, financial control, monitoring communications, and systematic isolation.
It is impossible to know how many cases there are like Helen’s, but with one in four women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, and two women being killed every week by a partner or former partner, the risk for many is very real.
Helen’s story has shone a light on an issue that too many wish to ignore. Listeners have set up the Helen Titchener Fund, which raises money for Refuge, a domestic violence charity, and has raised over £130,000. You can donate to that fund here.
The trial begins on Sunday 3 September at 7pm on The Archers, BBC Radio 4.
Olivia Potts is a law commentator and former criminal barrister. She writes here and tweets @_Poots_.