Why aren’t women being warned before they form relationships with dangerous men? Earlier this week, there was widespread shock when Theodore Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to the murder of his former partner, Angela Best. Best had no idea, when she first met Johnson, that he already had convictions for killing his wife and another partner. If ever there was an argument for a domestic violence offenders’ register, Johnson is it.
Many will wonder why he received such a light prison sentence (three years) when he was convicted of killing his wife, Yvonne Johnson, in Wolverhampton in 1981. He was convicted of manslaughter a second time in 1993 after he strangled his partner, Yvonne Bennett, at their home in north London. Two years later, after his release from a psychiatric unit, Johnson met Best and began a relationship with her in another area of London.
His short sentences are clearly a cause for concern. But the really important question highlighted by the case is why the criminal justice system fails to warn future partners about the record of convicted abusers. Here we have a man, with a documented history of lethal violence towards women, who was able to move from one area of the country to another, leaving knowledge of his crimes behind him. Best had no idea of his record until she found letters revealing that he had killed a previous partner.
This is a common pattern among extreme abusers, who deliberately move to a new area where they (and their crimes) are unknown. Best’s children described him as abusive and controlling, something that makes it all the more difficult for a woman to leave. Research confirms that women are most at risk of death or serious injury in the months after they leave an abusive man.
Best finally left Johnson in the autumn of 2016. In December, he asked her to meet him at his flat, where he attacked her with a claw hammer and strangled her with a cord in what appears to have been a copy of his second lethal attack. Hours later, Johnson threw himself under a train at Cheshunt railway station in Hertfordshire, losing both his arms.
A register would add a 'right to know' to the current 'right to ask'
A register for men like Johnson would go much further than Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police whether a man has a history of abuse. Even abusive men know enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and many women feel uncomfortable about going behind the back of someone they have no reason to suspect.
A register would add a “right to know” to the current “right to ask”. Like convicted sex offenders, men convicted of domestic violence would have to inform the police of their current address, making it much harder for them to drop off the radar. Crucially, they would also have to tell the police if they have formed new relationships. Officers would then have a duty to warn the women concerned about the offenders’ criminal records.
The police support new legal powers on these lines and so does the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Critics say it would take up a great deal of police time at a moment when forces are already stretched, but that is an argument (which Khan and other police commissioners have already made) for ensuring they have the resources they need.
The other argument against a register, which was also made against Clare’s law, is that it offers no protection against men who have managed to avoid convictions. But officers already try to avoid creating a false sense of security, pointing out that the absence of a criminal record should not be taken as a clean bill of health. Those who do get a result, even if it is unwelcome, have a piece of knowledge that could save them from death or serious injury.
It is impossible to know what Best would have done if the police had been obliged to tell her, when she first met Johnson in 1995, that he was a convicted double killer. What is undeniable is that if she had been warned about his terrible history, she would have had choices – and she might still be alive now.
• Joan Smith is a columnist, novelist and human rights activist