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Women Who Kill review – every murder, no matter how typical, is unique

‘Some days it feels like it was a million years ago’ … Amber Hilberling Photograph: Pro Co/CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY Two things are known for certain about Josh Hilberling’s death: he fell from the window of his 25th-floor apartment in Tulsa, and his wife Amber is serving 25 years for his murder.

The other elements of Amber Hilberling’s story – the central narrative of Women Who Kill[1] (Channel 4) – were more friable. Her relationship with Josh was tempestuous, and mutually violent. “It was a toxic love, it was a dangerous love, but it was love,” said a friend. Josh had recently been kicked out of the air force for drugs, and had since returned to dealing.

Amber was pregnant. It’s pretty clear that Amber pushed him during an argument, but it seems unlikely that death by defenestration was her intention. “Some days it feels like it was a million years ago,” she said.

And well it might. Hilberling, whose son is now five years old, was looking at spending half her life in prison before release. It would be rash to suggest that the motives of women who kill are gender specific, but statistics bear out two main differences between male and female murderers.

First, women kill a lot less often – they commit about 11% of all murders in the US. Second, female murderers almost always know their victim, and it’s generally a spouse, partner or significant other. It’s also estimated that between 40 and 80% of these killers may have acted in self-defence, but that statistic gives you an idea of how little we actually know.

“We’re all here because we made a mistake,” said one inmate of a New Mexico correctional facility. “My mistake was attempted murder. My husband.” “I’m in here for shooting my husband, for abusing my kids,” said another. “It’s like I was in prison at home and I came to prison to be free.”

The case against Hilberling was skewed from the outset. Before her arrest she was left in a police interview room with her grandmother, and their conversation was secretly recorded. In obvious distress, Hilberling said a number of incriminating things, including, but by no means limited to: “I killed him.” A media frenzy attended her trial.

A particularly alarming clip from the time showed a newsreader practically shouting at the camera while relating details of the story. Where no clear-cut motive was apparent, prosecutors and the media sought to ascribe one. Hilberling was portrayed as spoiled, abusive and remorseless. “No one wants the truth, they want a story,” said her mother.

As a documentary, Women Who Kill wisely resisted making any judgments or coming to any conclusions. If it seemed at times a little formless, it put one thing across forcefully: every murder, however typical, is also unique, based on peculiar circumstances. In hindsight some, like the Hilberling case, seem to be the result of insanely bad luck; with others it seemed inevitable that one or the other partner would end up dead.

And others were simply peculiar: Ana Trujillo, for example, insisted she was acting in response to spousal abuse when she killed her husband. She may have been, but she also beat him to death with the steel stiletto heel of her shoe until her jeans were soaked in his blood. Another murderer, who figures more heavily in next week’s second part, offered an unintentionally chilling defence. “You can’t tell me that I would kill a man in the only carpeted room in the house,” she said. “I mean, come on – I’m a woman.”

A tragic footnote reported that Hilberling took her life in prison after the programme was filmed. It’s an enormous risk calling a new sitcom Witless[2] (BBC3) – reviewers love an open goal – but this witness protection comedy has made it to a second series. Following directly on from last season’s climax, Leanne and Rhona have just mistakenly shot their neighbour.

Meanwhile Benny the hitman is lurking around outside the Swindon flat where they’ve been sequestered, as witnesses to a gangland killing, under new identities. Meanwhile teenage gangster Gareth has just been shot in the back by his mate on some wasteground. Fans of series one – I’ve only seen the speedy catchup at the beginning of this episode – may be inured to the mix of humour and senseless violence, but I found it jarring.

One moment Rhona and Leanne were acting silly in a hospital corridor, and the next the increasingly worried messages from dead Gareth’s mum were being deleted from his phone one by one.

On this evidence Witless is not so much a dark comedy as a broad farce and a bleak tragedy welded together like the front and back ends from two written-off cars.

Each half works well enough, but there’s something weak at the join.

References

  1. ^ Women Who Kill (www.channel4.com)
  2. ^ Witless (www.bbc.co.uk)

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