Does claiming a "sex game gone wrong" work?

In the UK, at the end of 2018, there was a great outcry at the sentencing of the partner of a young woman, Natalie Connolly, to 3 years and 8 months for her manslaughter. He’d claimed in his defence that Natalie had consented to “rough sex”, including beating and to sex acts that caused her terrible internal injury. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to pursue a murder charge against him. But was this an unusual case: does claiming sex “gone wrong” work in a defendant's favour?

We've reviewed the 58 cases of UK women killed by men in claimed consensual sexual violence, 1 of which is yet to come to trial. As a reminder, all those who’ve used this defence so far have been male.

Killings claimed to be sex, gone wrong

In 57 UK cases: 2 found not guilty of killing, 3 cases charges not pursued, 16 manslaughter, 3 murder convictions where the death was originally decided not to be a crime, 1 murder where the sex game claim had a clear sentencing benefit, and 31 further murder convictions.

The law in the UK should be clear: you cannot consent to serious injury or death. Despite this, a man claiming that a dead woman consented to her injuries may see the following outcomes:

  • Found not guilty of all charges

  • He is believed and the death is not treated as a crime, or charges are later dropped.

  • Prosecution pursue a manslaughter charge rather than murder.

  • Jury find him not guilty of murder, and guilty of manslaughter

Even if he is found guilty of murder, claiming the violence was consensual might result in:

  • Mitigation in sentencing - no intent to kill.

  • Extreme sexual violence is not treated as an aggravating factor in sentencing.

In almost all these cases, including those where the accused is convicted of murder, there is substantial evidence presented in court of the women’s previous sexual history, to support the idea they might have consented this time. This evidence is often widely reported in the press, and ties the victims to their alleged consent. Lyndsey Wynne-Jones, sister of Vicky, whose husband was convicted of her murder in 2010, said: “He took away Vicky, her choices, her chances, her future. And then he took her dignity. Even now, it’s the ‘sex game gone wrong’ that gets focused on. Even though it was disproved, it’s always going to be there.” And Mandy Barclay’s mum Mary Barclay, killed by her husband in 2001: “I just feel, that my daughter’s reputation has been ruined”.

And in 3 cases where women were murdered by men, but at first their deaths were deemed to be non-crimes, just a sex game gone wrong. In these cases the men were later convicted of murder only after: dismembering two other women, confessing the murder to a friend, and a review by a pathologist, respectively.

In 45% of UK killings so far, a claim that the woman’s injures were sustained in sex, “gone wrong” results in a lesser charge of manslaughter, a lighter sentence, or the death not being investigated as a crime at all.

Women and Girls’ cases which did not result in a murder conviction

Women and girls cases which did result in a murder conviction, but the “sex games” claim helped the accused