Murder of Jane Longhurst
Special needs teacher Jane Longhurst was murdered by Graham Coutts on 14 March 2003. At the time, Coutts was a guitarist and part-time salesman living in Brighton. He claimed that Longhurst had died accidentally during consensual erotic asphyxiation, although the prosecution maintained that there was nothing to suggest that Coutts and Longhurst had ever been lovers. Coutts was convicted of murder on 3 February 2004, and sentenced to a life term serving a minimum of 30 years (reduced to 26 years on appeal on 26 January 2005). The conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal on 19 July 2006, and a new trial started on 12 June 2007. He was again found guilty on 4 July 2007.
Jane Longhurst (born 6 November 1971, died 14 March 2003) had been a special needs teacher and musician living in Brighton, England. Her partly decomposed body was found burning in woodland in West Sussex on 19 April. When arrested, Coutts, who was her best friend's boyfriend, admitted causing her death. He had first hidden the body in a shed, and finally in a storage centre, where he had visited it nine times in a three-week period.
At his murder trial, Coutts confessed to a long-standing neck fetish and obsession with strangulation. His testimony, confirmed by other witnesses, stated that he had engaged in breath control play with several consenting partners on many occasions without incident over several years. He had spoken with his GP about his fixation and sought the help of a psychiatrist three years before the killing. Eventually, he started to access violent pornography on the Internet (especially simulated strangulation, rape and necrophilia). He had downloaded a collection of strangulation images the day before Jane's death. This, according to the prosecution, had caused his dangerous sexual behaviour and murderous intent. Critics of the prosecution's argument doubt this explanation, since the behaviour preceded the exposure to such pornography by about five years. No evidence of premeditation was presented to the jury.
Coutts testified that he wrapped a pair of nylon tights around Jane's neck as part of a consensual sexual practice known as erotic asphyxia, which he had undertaken on numerous previous occasions with several different lovers. The prosecution claimed that he had invited her to his flat under false pretences, then attacked her.
Evidence was given by a defence witness that several years ago, Jane had whispered to a colleague that a sexual encounter the previous night had "involved some kind of stopping breathing". The defence claimed that this was evidence that the deceased had engaged in activity with another partner, similar to that claimed by Coutts. Jane's boyfriend and a previous lover stated that they had not indulged in erotic asphyxia during their relations. According to Coutts's account in the witness box, he was masturbating whilst pulling the ligature around her neck, and when he reached orgasm he found that Jane was lying dead across him, with a quantity of blood produced.
The prosecution case that a murder took place rested on three key issues. Firstly, was it certain that Coutts would have known that a serious injury was being incurred in sufficient time to be able to stop and prevent the death? Secondly, did Coutts have a motive for causing injury or death? Thirdly, could he be trusted to produce a reliable account of what had happened?
Pathologists' expert testimony
If the death became inevitable before abnormal signs became apparent to Coutts, the necessary intent could not be established to secure a murder conviction. To establish this point, Home Office pathologist Dr Vesna Djurovic testified that Coutts must have been aware of the medical emergency for two to three minutes before death became inevitable. Had Coutts acted on this emergency as soon as he became aware of it, Jane would definitely have survived. By continuing to constrict her neck long after becoming aware of the emergency, Coutts showed the necessary mens rea for murder. This view was contested by defence pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd, whose expert opinion was that death could have occurred very quickly by a mechanism known as vagal inhibition, taking as little as one or two seconds. This view is also supported by those familiar with breath control play, who recognise that death may become inevitable without signs of medical emergency. Sometimes this will be through vagal inhibition, sometimes through interference with the baroreceptors which sense blood pressure, and sometimes through brain or other haemorrhage. Such deaths may occur suddenly and without warning. Other mechanisms may result in death minutes or even hours later. In spite of being at the core of the trial, no expert in the field of erotic asphyxia presented testimony.
Dr Djurovic's expert testimony was based on experience analysing strangulation victims, combined with an understanding of the physiology behind death by strangulation. The epidemiological claim that two to three minutes was almost always required to commit a murder by strangulation was drawn from her knowledge of murders.
Critics of Dr Djurovic's testimony claim that the epidemiology of death from erotic asphyxia is completely different from that of murder, since the participants try to prevent medical emergency or death, not to cause it. The statistical distribution of exact mechanism of death becomes heavily skewed towards those rarer causes which do not manifest themselves by obvious symptoms of emergency before the point of irrevocability, such as severe induced heart arrhythmia or massive haemorrhage. It becomes apparent that Dr Djurovic's argument is circular, relying on the epidemiology and physiology of murder to prove it was murder. An alternative approach, seeking to disprove the accident epidemiology was not attempted by expert witness. Indeed, Dr Djurovic testified that the death could have been from heart attack or vagus inhibition, but in her experience, these would be unlikely mechanisms.
The importance of statistical terminology such as "very unlikely", "very rare", and "most likely" in the pathologists' statements has raised debate. Only by a rigorous analysis and exposition of the implicit prior assumptions can such terms be employed in court on a crucial point. Misused or inaccurate statistical evidence has in other cases led to exoneration of the defendant, such as that of Sally Clark.
The nature of their relationship
During the trial, Coutts claimed that the death was an accident that occurred during consensual sex. Prosecution witnesses testified that Longhurst was in a stable relationship with her long-term boyfriend and that she and he were happy together. No evidence was put forward to suggest a previous sexual relationship between Longhurst and Coutts, and Coutts' account stated that the claimed sexual act was the first sexual act between them.
The possible role of violent pornography
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The prosecution placed great weight on the presence of "extreme pornography" in Coutts' possession at the time of the death. This, it was argued, was the triggering factor for Coutts' murderous intent, establishing a clear motive for murder. Although this aspect is pivotal, no evidence was presented documenting this controversial effect in comparable cases. A total of 69 violent pornographic images were found on Coutts' computer.
Coutts' pattern of erotic asphyxia had already begun by the early 1990s, five years before he encountered extreme pornography depicting such activity (1996). In addition, the six or seven years (1996–2003) that elapsed between encountering the material and causing the death of Longhurst creates doubt to the claim that the material is a potent cause of murderous intent.
Although Longhurst may well have been interested in such topics without having confessed such to her boyfriend, her lack of such material supports the prosecution's claim that she may have not in fact been interested in the topic. This would lead to speculation over whether Coutts had informed Longhurst of his intentions, which would support their argument to premeditation. On the other hand, in conflict to the prosecution's argument is that Jane Longhurst had earlier told a fellow teacher that she willingly practised breath control play during sex with a previous boyfriend.
Coutts said he had had murderous thoughts about women since he was 15. He was seen by psychiatrists in 1991, 12 years before the murder, whom he told he feared his thoughts may lead to criminal actions.
Graham Coutts was convicted of Longhurst's murder and began serving a 26-year minimum prison term. He has maintained his innocence, and pursued appeals on a variety of grounds. On 19 July 2006, the Law Lords overturned the murder conviction, ruling that the jury should have been presented with a possible manslaughter verdict. This verdict would have been appropriate had the jury believed that the death was an accident caused by Coutts's negligence. On 19 October 2006 his conviction was quashed and a re-trial ordered; this began on 11 June 2007.
The issue of manslaughter charges was brought to the appeals court in December 2004, and was upheld in January 2005. Coutts then took his case to the House of Lords and on 19 July 2006, the case was referred back to the lower court who were invited to quash it. On 19 October 2006 this decision was confirmed by the Court of Appeal and the original conviction was formally quashed. A new trial took place in June 2007, and Coutts was convicted on 4 July 2007 by an 11 to one majority verdict. The following day, 5 July, Coutts was sentenced once again to a life term (serving a minimum of 26 years).
Criminalisation of possession of "extreme pornography"
The possible link with what the Government has termed "extreme pornography" led to calls from Longhurst's mother Liz, the police, MP Martin Salter and Home Secretary David Blunkett to ban such websites. A campaign by the Government and Liz Longhurst collected a petition of over 50,000 signatures calling for a ban on "extreme internet sites promoting violence against women in the name of sexual gratification" after the original murder conviction of Graham Coutts. Unable to shut down the websites, many of which were legally hosted in the UK and US, the Home Office was motivated to consult on criminalising possession of "extreme pornographic material", including images of consenting adults, and staged "realistic depictions" of such acts. Although the consultation found 63% of responses opposed strengthening the law to address the "challenges of the Internet", the UK government announced on 30 August 2006 that it intends to introduce new laws governing the possession of "extreme pornography". The possession of such material would be punishable by up to three years' imprisonment. The SM group Unfettered has created a campaign, Backlash, in opposition to such changes.
Proponents of the new laws call them a way of protecting women from similar tragedies. Critics say that the reverse may be true, citing evidence from Japan, the United States, Denmark and elsewhere that sexually motivated crime negatively correlates with the availability of pornography, or that the laws will criminalize those who are not violent.
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- Original judgement (Dead link)
- Pornography inversely linked to sex crime in US states
- Pornography inversely linked to sex crime in Japan
- Announcement of guilty verdict (Dead link)
- Lords overturn murder conviction of musician obsessed with violence
- Teacher murder conviction quashed
- Daily Telegraph interview with Liz Longhurst
- Backlash opposes legal changes.
- The Consenting Adult Action Network has protested against the resultant law.
- Summary of responses to the Consultation on the Possession of Extreme Pornographic Material