Sarah Burnett was in bed reading when she heard shouts from the house next door. She went to the window and saw Kate Keaveney and Christopher Burke in the garden. He was staggering and she was holding him up. Then he pushed her away and she fell down. He went back towards the house and she went down towards the telephone box. It was 11pm on 29 November 1995, in Runcorn, Cheshire. Chris later died in hospital from a single stab wound to the heart, delivered by Kate. Did she intend to kill him, or had she just snapped, provoked by seven years of domestic violence? At her first trial, there was a hung jury. At the second, at Chester Crown Court in May 1996, Kate, aged 32, was convicted of murder, and is now serving a life sentence at HMP Durham.
The relationship with Chris
Kate was first introduced to Chris in a pub called the Barley Mow by a mutual friend, Geoff. They got chatting and started to go out together. After about three months, she moved into his house in Brook Avenue, to start with as a lodger, in a separate bedroom. They got on well together and the relationship was fairly casual. They did not start living together as common law man and wife until several months after she had moved in. However, throughout the relationship, she always contributed to the general running of the house. Kate has an intermediate instructor’s certificate in horse riding, and worked regularly in various stables until 1991, when, because she had sustained injuries to her hands, it was difficult for her to work for long periods of time. Also, as her relationship with Chris developed, she began to lose confidence in her abilities. He would often turn up to collect her drunk, which humiliated her in front of her colleagues. He would try to get her involved in theft or other petty crimes. She also found it difficult to explain away the marks of his attacks, and the stress she was under made it hard for her to concentrate.
Initially their arguments were just verbal, but Chris felt threatened by Kate’s intelligence as she would often get the better of him verbally, so he began to resort to physical violence in order to ‘win’ the dispute. After each violent attack, Chris would apologise and Kate would forgive him. His obsessive jealousy caused a great many problems between them.
Both Chris and Kate took drugs on a regular basis. Kate had used methadone for six months at the age of 19 but did not touch it again until she was 30 and living with Chris. It was a cushion for her, allowing her to block out the traumas of what was happening to her. She was too scared to seek help as her relationship with the police was not good. This was partly due to the drug abuse, and partly to the fact that Chris would get her involved in criminal activity. She did not have the courage to leave, and self-doubt, guilt and fear kept her in a mental prison. He had burgled someone’s house and said that the clocks he stole from it now belonged to her. She threw them out, but he rescued them from the bin and began hitting her with them. Chris was 5’11” tall and weighed 11 stone, whereas Kate is 5’1″ tall and weighs only 9 stone, so it was easy for him to overpower her. Chris also drank very heavily on a daily basis. Kate herself would have up to three cans of Special Brew.
He would display fits of paranoia when he had mislaid his drugs or money and accuse Kate of stealing them. The abuse escalated. He would accuse her falsely of having affairs, and check the mileage of his car to ensure that she could not go anywhere without his knowledge.
She went into Halton General Hospital in connection with injuries she had sustained on her hands in a motorbike accident she had had several months before. When the nurse examined her after asking her to take her clothes off, she was appalled at the number of injuries Kate had on her body. She told the nurse that these were the result of her boyfriend having abused her. There is a record of these which could not be attributed to the crash. During the summer of 1992, he hit her and twisted her neck so that she was forced to go to Halton Hospital where she was put in a neck brace. She told the staff she had had a riding accident. It became an inescapable rollercoaster ride to disaster for her, trapped in this cycle of abuse. He would beat her up, she would leave and stay with friends, he would turn up and apologise and she would go back to him.
On January 6 1995, Chris’s house was raided by police and he was arrested and remanded to HMP Walton, charged with possession of cannabis with intent to supply. Kate visited him in prison and stayed in his house whilst he was on remand. When he returned, he accused Kate of signing a paper consenting to the search. He picked up a kitchen knife and started lashing out. He held it close to her stomach and punched her with his clenched fist. Kate left again and did not return for two months. However, her feelings for him would not allow her to make a complete break. Once when he butted her in the face she called Runcorn Police Station, but one of the officers said, “Why don’t you just leave him, Kate?” But she no longer had any self confidence, and began to believe that maybe she was incompetent and bad and somehow deserved what he had done to her.
In 1995, Chris assaulted her and his lodger, Richard Lucas, in his house. Kate left to find a phone, but they followed her into the street, and Chris was kicking Richard in the head. Eventually she went to a neighbour’s house. A passer-by dragged Richard and Chris apart and Richard called his parents, who came to collect him. He attended Halton General Hospital as a result of his injuries. Kate stayed at a friend’s house for several weeks before moving back again with Chris.
On the day of Chris’s death, she did not see him until the afternoon, when they went with two friends to cash a cheque. Chris appeared to have been drinking a lot and began acting strangely. Kate drank a couple of cans of Special Brew during the day. When they returned home, Chris fell asleep on the couch. A friend, Wendy, came round, and she and Kate went out for something to eat. She tried to wake Chris, as she noticed he had wet himself, but he was still asleep. She came back and ate a Chinese meal, leaving half for him. He woke up at 10.30 and ate some food. He asked her if she would get his pills for him. She did so, and he took a number of diazepam and temazepam, giving her a few.
After ten minutes, he suddenly without reason grabbed her and threw her across the living room. He then hit her hard, walked out of the living room, and returned with a knife. Kate was terrified and made a few attempts to grab the knife from him. Eventually she got hold of the lower part of the handle. She then brandished the knife to keep him at bay. He kept coming at her, growling and swearing. He went to attack her, and she snapped. The next thing she can remember is seeing Chris put his hand inside his dressing gown and pulling it out covered in blood. He walked downstairs and she followed him, holding him up. Then she went to phone for the ambulance.
In her first trial at Mold, the judge said in his summing up that Kate could not use the defence of provocation as she did not use the word ‘temper’ in her evidence. Therefore she was left with self-defence as the only option – a defence which is difficult to prove in such circumstances. Kate did however state that she was overcome with a ‘passion’ and would have to get the transcript of her evidence at this trial to discover what her exact words were. The prosecution witnesses spoke out in favour at this trial but the jury were left with a dilemma over self defence and returned a 6-6 decision on murder.
The second trial at Chester was only five days after the first. It was in the same catchment area as Mold and therefore the extensive media coverage was bound to have been seen by some of the jury. During the five days between trials, the police must have coached the witnesses as several of them changed their evidence to be more detrimental to Kate. One of the female witnesses in the first trial stated that she had seen Chris and Kate arguing but had not witnessed who started it. In the second trial she said that she had seen Kate kick, punch and butt him, and even demonstrated the actions in the witness box! Philip Moran, who had witnessed several acts of violence by Chris, said that he could not remember details of the attacks, particularly the one on Richard Lucas, as he had been drinking. The police officer, Sergeant Feint, did say that he had seen Kate with bruises on her face once. He also said that he was aware that Kate had been referred to the domestic violence unit.
The neighbour, Sarah Burnett, who witnessed Kate and Chris in the garden after the stabbing, said in evidence that there had been pushing and hitting on both sides. However, in her original statement, there was no mention of this.
There was a tuft of hair discovered at the scene of the crime which belonged to Kate. This was pulled out of her head by Chris during the attack although the judge maintained it could have been a defensive measure. There were eleven knife wounds altogether – but most of these were superficial as if the knife had just prodded the surface. Some were on the left arm. The one that killed Chris went straight through the heart. There were a number of cuts on Kate’s hands which were consistent with her having grabbed the knife when Chris was holding it. The prosecution maintained that these were from her hand slipping down the blade, but it is unlikely that she would have held the knife by the blade unless she was attempting to wrest it from someone.
The pathologist reckoned Chris was lying on his back when the fatal wound was administered yet there was no proof of this as no blood stains were found on any floor surface, except for one small drop which had fallen in the doorway of the lounge where the incident happened as he barred her way out.
Covered in bruises
The prosecution maintained that there had been no fight, nor had Chris attacked Kate, yet there was a bruise on her left elbow, her face was swollen, she had another bruise on the edge of her left eye, one on her left leg and one on the back of her legs. The doctor did not really carry out a proper examination and failed to notice two cuts on the side of her right hand which had been made when she grabbed the knife from Chris. When Kate arrived at HMP Risley where she was remanded in custody, Dr Keane, who examined her there, found numerous injuries on her body, including multiple bruises and abrasions of the skin which the doctor at the police station appeared to have missed.
Chris was found to have a large amount of alcohol and some diazepam in his body. Diazepam is supposed to be a sedative but can produce a paradoxical reaction in certain people, making them violent. Methadone and temazepam were found in Kate’s system. Methadone is supposed to produce a feeling of euphoria but mixed with temazepam it may have produced the extreme sense of fear, even paranoia, that he was going to kill her – the feeling she described in the witness box.
Richard Lucas, the lodger who was attacked by Chris, confirmed that he could be violent. He said in evidence that he saw Chris punching Kate, kicking her and throwing something at her in the kitchen and later outside a neighbour’s house. Rosemary Armstrong, Kate’s sister, gave evidence that Kate had come to stay with her on numerous occasions to escape Chris’s violence. She was worried that her sister might have become seriously injured in the relationship.
At the beginning of his summing up, the judge talks to the jury about the two defences offered – self defence and provocation – but fails to mention these again at the end after he has gone through all the evidence. This is a difficult and controversial area of the law, so the judge had a duty to make the issue crystal clear to the jury, but he neglected to do this.
Poor defence advice
Kate has the support of the Campaign Against Domestic Violence in her attempt to get her conviction reduced to manslaughter on appeal. Her defence team failed to advise her on the possible need for hospital records or police records as concrete evidence of the violence she suffered. Her main hope is to secure these records plus other witness statements to prove the extent of abuse she suffered. Additionally, she needs transcripts of witnesses evidence at the first trial to prove they changed their story, possibly through police intimidation. And she hopes to obtain expert evidence to show that Chris was standing when she stabbed him, proving that the incident happened as she described it; and expert opinion on the combined effects of the drugs they had taken.
Despite the recent high profile appeals of Sarah Thornton and Emma Humphries, there are still many abused women who are suffering yet more abuse at the hands of the courts.
Kate’s appeal was refused earlier this year.
Kate Keaveney, MG3573 H.M.P. Cookham Wood, Rochester, Kent ME1 3LU
Clare Barstow, the author of this article, is herself serving a life sentence for a crime she did not commit.