Elizabeth Yardley, Associate Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University
Over the past six weeks, we have heard about the violent death of Bristol teenager Becky Watts. A range of characters stood accused of various offences in relation to her killing but taking centre stage were two people she should have felt safe around. They were her step-brother, 28 year-old Nathan Matthews, and his partner, 21 year-old Shauna Hoare. Today Matthews has been found guilty of murder and Hoare of manslaughter.
The details of the events that were alleged to have taken place have been some of the most awful I have encountered. Even as a criminologist specialising in the study of homicide, I have struggled to make sense of this case at times. On the one hand, Becky is a typical female victim in that she was killed by someone known to her – women are much more likely to be killed by someone they know than men, (80% and 54% respectively)[i]. However, most of these women are in an older age bracket than Becky[ii] and are killed by their partners or former partners, often following an escalation of the violent and controlling behaviour displayed by these men. Becky was killed by her step-brother. This is described by criminologists as siblicide – where one sibling kills another sibling, step-siblings included. This is a type of homicide that criminologists have not studied very much at all. However one thing that we are certain about is that siblicides are very, very rare[iii] and when they do occur, the victim and perpetrator are most commonly brothers[iv]. So the fact Becky was killed by Matthews is odd in this regard.
We have an appetite for the unusual as consumers of crime news and the reported sexual element in this crime has been a key factor in propelling it into the headlines over the past couple of months. It was alleged that Matthews and Hoare conspired to kidnap Becky for sexual purposes. Evidence offered in support of this included violent ‘teen porn’ owned by Matthews and text messages between the two in which they discussed kidnapping schoolgirls. There is no doubt that Matthews has extreme and deviant sexual tastes. However, is this really what drove him to kill her? I’m not convinced, I tend to agree with the defence that this was a ‘side show’.
In Matthews and Hoare, we are not dealing with criminal masterminds. Whilst they appear to be forensically aware – Hoare was very keen to stress that none of her DNA would be anywhere near this crime, probably a fan of CSI – they aren’t so clued up about other types of evidence. Hoare lied about the text messages in which she and Matthews fantasised about kidnapping schoolgirls. When confronted with this evidence, she said it ‘looked bad’. In relation to a YouTube search done on the day Becky was killed, which found a video entitled ‘Do you want to hide a body?’, this was described as ‘unrelated’, ‘bad timing’ and an ‘unhappy coincidence’. So in terms of the digital footprint we all leave behind us as we go about our daily lives, Hoare and Matthews don’t appear to be particularly savvy. It’s my view that if this had been a planned sexual killing, the hapless pair would have left a treasure trove of electronic evidence, an array of digital breadcrumbs leading right to the conclusion that they are a sexually depraved killing team. But I don’t think we are dealing with the twenty-first century’s answer to Fred and Rose West here – I think the driving force behind this murder was a more simple one, albeit with the same tragic outcome.
I looked back at the research on siblicide to see if this would help me make sense of what went on here. It’s claimed that most siblicides happen when adult siblings are in intense competition for parental resources, power and status[v]. We have heard that even after Becky’s death, Matthews’ recollections of her were far from that of a grieving stepbrother. He painted her as a selfish, bolshie attention seeker, time and time again. He never had a single good word to say about her – and that isn’t surprising for someone like Matthews, who sees the world in black and white. He’s not very emotionally complex. He was so firmly pitted against this poor young woman that even after she died, he continued to treat her as a problem, an inconvenience, something that had to be gotten rid of. It wasn’t enough that he has ended her life, he had to completely obliterate her – such was the strength of his hateful feelings towards this young girl.
Becky was not a human being to Matthews, who appears to have difficulty establishing relationships with people in general. He is awkward, strange and odd. However, people like him are capable of bonding emotionally and identifying with some people in some situations – Matthews appeared to be close to his mother and to Hoare, but that was about it, Becky wasn’t someone he felt a positive connection to. Matthews was jealous of and irritated by the teenager, whose struggles with her own adolescence resulted in some much needed care and compassion from her family, which grated on him. He was also jealous of the material things she had. The court heard that in a Facebook message to Hoare, he ranted about Becky supposedly having £500 for a new television in her bedroom, saying that she ran the house and was a ‘d***head’. He developed Becky into a bad character in his incredulous story, which he bolstered with exaggerated claims that she was making his disabled mother’s life a misery. He detested this young woman and wanted to cause her harm, thoughts which were highly likely to have been shared with Hoare. This wasn’t about sex. It was about envy.
Matthews’ bizarre claims of a grand plan to abduct his stepsister to teach her a lesson so she would treat his mother with more respect is indicative of this man’s emotional immaturity. His self-righteous attitude and sense of entitlement is not that of a man in his twenties but of a petulant teenager with little control over his feelings and behaviours. In his relationship with Hoare, he was able to exercise the power that he didn’t have in other areas of his life. His deviant behaviour and values went unchallenged, growing in nature and scale. Indeed, Hoare stated in a police interview, “I thought he was completely like normal, he seemed – obviously violent – but reasonably normal”. The rules and boundaries that shaped Matthews’ and Hoare’s everyday lives are altogether different from what you or I would call normal or mainstream. The mistake we make when trying to understand people like this is to judge them by our own standards. “If I know my partner had just done that, I would have done this”. Not so here. The usual rules just don’t apply.
Matthews is someone who displays disturbing personality traits and behaviours – he is easily angered, volatile, prone to fits of rage and violent meltdowns. The combination of simplistic childlike emotions and the body of a 28 year old man is a toxic and a dangerous one. However we have seen no evidence to suggest that he is mentally ill – he was in control, he knew what he was doing and he knew that it was wrong, he was not being compelled to act in this way via some form of psychotic episode. He is aware of society’s rules and laws but just chooses not to follow them.
The job of the police and prosecution was to build a case – which they have very successfully done and should be congratulated on. However, we may never know the whole truth or exactly happened on that fateful day when Becky Watts fought for and lost her life. However, I don’t think it was an intricately planned, sexually motivated homicide carried out by a cunning and devious killing team. It was the culmination of jealousy and rage that had been bubbling away unchecked in the antisocial, dysfunctional and abnormal reality that was Matthews’ and Hoare’s lifeworld. Sometimes it sadly is that simple.
[i] Office for National Statistics. (2015). Focus on Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2013/14. Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2013-14/rpt-chapter-2.html
[ii] There are disproportionately high numbers of female homicide victims aged 20-44 when compared to their population profile. Source as above.
[iii] Diem, C. and Pizarro, J. M (2010). Social Structure and Family Homicide, Journal of Family Violence, 25: 521-532.
[iv] Underwood, R. C. and Patch, P. C. (1999). Siblicide: A descriptive analysis of sibling homicide, Homicide Studies, 3(4): 333-348.
[v] Daly, M. and Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Hawthorne: de Gruyter.
Ewing, C. P. (1997).Fatal Families: The dynamics of intrafamilial homicide. London: Sage.
Pollet, T. V. and Hoben, A. D. (2011). An Evolutionary Perspective on Siblings: Rivals and resources. In: C. A. Salmon and T. A. Shackelford (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology (pp. 128-148). New York: Oxford University Press.
Image credit: Press Association
Dr Elizabeth Yardley
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