At social functions, Stephen McPhee would follow his wife Cathy to the toilet and wait outside.
She confided in a psychologist about his verbal abuse, drinking and pornography habit.
But when Cathy told her possessive husband she wanted to separate, he was aggressive and threatened to kill himself.
After McPhee stabbed and killed Cathy in their Mildura home, the judge found that although the marriage had its “strains”, McPhee’s conduct was totally out of character and “otherwise inexplicable”.
Non-physical forms of violence such as controlling behaviour or obsessive jealousy can be “red flags” for lethal risk, a new report from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and Monash University finds.
But in Victorian courts, these factors are not always seen as relevant.
Instead, explanations often focus on how the woman leaving the relationship has affected the man’s mental state, with researchers finding a readiness to accept homicides were a spontaneous, out-of-the-blue “loss of control”.
Researchers looked at 51 intimate-partner homicides by Victorian men since 2005 and found there were similar patterns of family violence and highly possessive attitudes.
But in a number of cases, despite a history of abusive or controlling behaviour, the offender was described in court as being of “good character”, and this was accepted by the judge as relevant to his sentence.
“We’d like to see more judges challenging men’s claims that the woman’s behaviour caused their mental distress, and to make it clear that women have a right to leave relationships,” report co-author Dr Deborah Kirkwood said.
A decade ago, Victoria made changes to homicide laws to reduce the ability of violent perpetrators to rely on the defence of “provocation”.
These changes were hailed as reforms that would address gender bias in the justice process, but little is known about their impact.
While the word provocation is now rarely explicitly used, men still claim they killed their partner due to distress about separation or infidelity, the report finds.
And although the police and magistrates courts undertake family-violence risk assessments, these are not always recognised as significant in the prosecution of a homicide or accepted into evidence.
A separation is consistently found to be associated with a greater risk of lethal violence, even years down the track. In more than half of the Victorian cases the victim had expressed a desire to separate.
Controlling behaviour, obsessive jealousy and threats to kill or suicide can also be warning signs for a high risk of serious injury or death.
In the decade from 2002, 488 women were killed in Australia by an intimate partner or ex-partner – about a quarter of all homicides.
In Victoria in the past decade, 80 per cent of the perpetrators of intimate-partner homicide were men.
About half of the 51 cases studied had a history of domestic violence recorded.
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