11 JANUARY 1992, Page 14

If symptoms

persist. . .

IT WAS a naïve domestic little murder, but I think you'll be amused by its pre- sumption.

A man should not strangle his wife, of course, nor a wife her husband, even when provoked: the law and morality are agreed. Nevertheless, a certain erosion of this unexceptionable principle seems to have occurred of late, to the detri- ment of domestic security. For if excuses are to be accepted in such matters, who among us will sleep easily in his or her bed?

I was called last week to the local police station by the custody sergeant who was worried that his prisoner — a wife-strangler who had just been arrest- ed — was medically unfit to be detained. The prisoner was curled up in a ball, the sergeant said, not responding to anything that was said to him. From time to time, he would hurl himself at the cell wall and bang his head against it.

'Sounds quite normal to me,' I said. 'For a murderer, that is.'

'Give me some credit, doctor,' said the sergeant. 'I've been in this game 12 years, and I know when something's wrong. His eyes have gone.'

So I set out to examine the murderer whose eyes had gone.

I found him curled up in his cell, just as the sergeant had described, under- neath the notice which informed him that writing on the wall was an offence and would result in an additional sen- tence.

I asked him what had happened, and he spoke with perfect clarity.

'I strangled my wife,' he said. 'I shouldn't've done it, doctor. I've messed everything up.'

At that moment I felt proud to be British: even our criminals use under- statement.

'I never thought I'd do it. I just lost my temper, like. She was seeing another man, and I warned her, but she wouldn't listen. I couldn't take no more, doctor.'

Unbeknown to me, the sergeant had his ear to the judas-hole. Suddenly the murderer began to moan; he clutched his head, jumped up and started to scream. He ran to the wall and banged his head on it.

'Give me some painkillers, you bas- tards, give me some fucking painkillers before my fucking head fucking bursts!'

I told him in no uncertain terms to stop, and he did.

'Sorry, doctor,' he said, 'but I've got a terrible headache.'

I turned to go, and just caught sight of the sergeant scurrying down the corridor between the cells. Back in his office, I told him there was nothing wrong with the murderer beyond a certain under- standable anxiety.

'But there must be, doctor,' he said. 'I mean, look what he's done.'

It emerged then that the murderer was not previously unknown to the police: the week before he had been arrested for causing what is known in the trade as a domestic. This involved smashing up the house and threatening to kill his wife with a knife, a threat he repeated in front of the policemen who went to intervene.

'Didn't you charge him?' I asked. `No,' replied the sergeant.

'Why not?'

'His wife wouldn't press charges.'

Whatever are we to make of the police? It seems they are willing to pros- ecute only when they have made up the evidence themselves.

Theodore Dalrymple