true crime

"An entire human pelt, hanging from a meat hook." Behind the stories of women who kill.

When Katherine Knight murdered, skinned and cooked her boyfriend, John Price, she cemented herself as one of Australia’s most notorious killers.

The murder, which took place in March 2000, was so horrific, Knight was the first woman in Australia’s history to see the words “never to be released” on her court papers.

Women don’t kill often. It’s what made Knight’s crime that little bit more shocking.

According to data held by the Australian Institute of Criminology, women make up just 14 per cent of killers in this country.

LISTEN: To the story of Katherine Knight. Post continues after podcast.

Rebecca Butterfield is another notorious Australian female killer.

While serving time in Sydney’s Silverwater Prison after stabbing her neighbour, drug charges and malicious damage, she fatally stabbed her cell-mate 33 times.

Now in her 40s, Butterfield is still in prison on an extended detention order despite already serving her time for manslaughter.

Then there’s Keli Lane. She’s also in prison for murder.

Convicted of killing her newborn baby in 1996, hers is a controversial case as she is still considered by many to be innocent.

Three women – three very different stories – but according to criminal psychologist Tim Watson-Munro: “They’re all bad, not mad.”

Women who kill.

Men are far more likely than women to kill. The rates of domestic violence related murder in Australia are disturbingly high. Last year we lost 55 women to acts of violence, the majority of which were perpetrated by men. Our country is still reeling from the recent death of Hannah Clarke and her three children, allegedly at the hands of her estranged husband.

In the first seven weeks of 2020 alone we’ve lost seven women, real-life proof of the statistic we’ve known for years: one woman dies at the hands of a former or current partner every single week.

According to 2015-16 statistics from the Institute of Criminology, 86 per cent of murderers in Australia are male. Which means 14 per cent are female. That’s 36 women to 264 men.

The year before it was 41 women to 217 men.

women who kill
Source: Australian Institute of Criminology, 2016.
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"The irony is, when they [women] do it, it gets more press attention because people think 'how could a female do this'," explains Watson-Munro.

Queensland criminologist Claire Ferguson says some of the more publicised cases involving lone female murderers are actually not typical at all of how we see women kill.

"What we do see more often than anything is women committing intimate partner homicide often after experiencing abuse at their hands," she tells Mamamia. "We see survival orientated homicide more than the diabolical kind of murder."

There are some trends that emerge when the motives for murder are analysed and compared along gender lines.

Watson-Munro says during his 43 years working with murderers, he's noticed for men it's more often than not about patriarchy, property, sexual jealousy, and control.

In women, both Watson-Munro and Ferguson suggest the motives are predominately about survival, revenge, or jealousy.

"They're all bad, not mad."

On March 1, 2000, two police officers arrived at John Price's house in Aberdeen, NSW, at about 8:10am.

The door was unlocked, and there was something hanging in the entry - it looked like some type of blanket.

But on closer inspection, it wasn't a blanket. It was skin. An entire human pelt, hanging from a meat hook.

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John Price was murdered by Katherine Knight in 2000. Image via YouTube.
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John Price's torso was on the ground, his head and genitalia missing. There were 37 stab wounds to both the front and back of his body.

His head had been placed into a pot and boiled.

Other parts of his body had been cooked and plated up on the dining room table alongside some vegetables. Name tags for his children from a previous relationship had been placed in front of the "meals".

Despite how it might appear, according to a criminal court, Katherine Knight was not insane.

In fact, the 'insanity' plea is hardly used in Australia Watson-Munro tells Mamamia, explaining that the legal definition of insanity is quite different to what people perceive it to be.

"Doing 'crazy' things doesn't necessarily mean you're insane from a legal perspective," he says. "The test is whether you're aware of what you're doing at the time and whether you're aware of the consequences of what you're doing. If that's the test - Knight knew exactly what she was doing."

Knight was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of John Price, with her actions described by three separate judges as "evil" "heinous" and "wicked."

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John Price and Katherine Knight. Image: Supplied.

Psychologists accepted during her trial that Knight had borderline personality disorder - but the court rejected her claims she couldn't remember anything from the killing. The court ruled that her murder was amongst the most serious category of murders due to her premeditation and the enjoyment she took in skinning and cooking her victim.

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Her actions indicated cognition, volition, calm and skill - and she has never expressed remorse or regret for her actions.

But as Penny Crofts, an international expert on criminal law and models of culpability writes, "the judgements constructed Knight as monstrous, rejecting any nuances that might have complicated the notion of Knight's culpability, preferring to reduce her motives to irrational intent and malevolence, rejecting any past victimisation and explaining her actions as due to her 'nature.'"

Knight's childhood was tumultuous, and she witnessed countless incidents of abuse and violence growing up. She and Price fought tirelessly over his refusal to marry her, and he kicked her out just prior to his murder.

"Not only did the majority of judgements minimise any reason for Knight's slaying of Price, there was a persistent refusal to accept any reasons for her past behaviour except malice or spite," writes Crofts, suggesting there could be more to Knight's story than the court ruling might tell us.

That's not to say Knight wasn't disturbed.

"Knight, I think was obviously a psychopath and highly disturbed. She worked in an abattoir - and she slept with knives dangling at the end of her bed  - so clearly she had a clear preoccupation with knives," Watson-Munro tells Mamamia. "She is someone who has no remorse and is very dangerous."

When murder is blood-sport.

Rebecca Butterfield was infatuated with fellow prisoner Bluce Lim-Ward.

"I don’t know what Rebecca’s intentions were to this day. I don’t know why she formed this thing for Lou. Maybe she wanted to have a relationship with her? Something sexual? She could have been that type. But it was definitely a fatal attraction. Sh*t got really weird, really quick," fellow prisoner Jill tells author James Phelps in Green Is The New Black.

Using a meat cleaver, Butterfield stabbed Lim-Ward a total of 33 times in a frenzied attack after a day spent knitting in her prison quarters.

But Butterfield's violent history began long before she murdered Lim-Ward in 2003.

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Rebecca Butterfield. Image: Twitter.
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Initially convicted for malicious damage, drug offences and unlawful entry, Butterfield stabbed her neighbour five times when they tried to stop her from self-harming in November, 2000.

In prison, she cut her throat four times, cracked open her own skull by head-butting a wall 105 times, and assaulted corrections officers on multiple occasions.

Butterfield was diagnosed with several personality disorders, with Justice Stephen Rothman telling a court: "The combination of disorders and psychoses suffered by the defendant and her history of criminal violence leads inexorably to the view that if unsupervised this defendant would more likely than not commit a serious violent offence.

"There is evidence that some of the defendant's threats of self-harm or engagement in self-harm are premeditated for the purpose of forcing officers to enter her cell and enabling her to increase her opportunities for violence against the officers."

Criminal psychologist Tim Watson-Munro says in terms of spontaneous violence and rage with premeditation, Knight and Butterfield "stand on their own" but "Butterfield is more dangerous now, because she has demonstrated that jail makes no difference to her homicidal urges."

Watson-Munro says she has accepted that she's going to be there forever so it's "bloodsport to her," after the court heard Butterfield had been engaging in threats of self-harm for the purpose of forcing officers to enter her cell so she could hurt them.

However the Daily Telegraph also notes that Butterfield (according to her psychologist), "hears voices through the sound system telling her to attack prison officials," and she is "adamant they are real."

The publication goes on to report that Magistrate Lisa Stapleton considered the seriousness of Butterfield's schizophrenia and personality disorder severe enough to warrant she not be dealt with under the criminal code, instead ordering her to complete her prescribed mental health treatment behind bars.

"If she cared, she would cry more."

Keli Lane is not the first mother who the public has condemned for not 'behaving' the way she 'should' when a child dies.

Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Lindy Chamberlain, who was wrongfully convicted of killing her nine-week-old daughter Azaria while camping in Uluru in 1980.

Chamberlain didn't grieve her newborn in the way Australia wanted her to. It's a similar accusation that has been levelled at Kate McCann - whose daughter went missing in 2007 while the family was on holiday.

In her essay, Kate McCann and Medea news narrativesjournalism professor Nicola Goc argues that McCann had joined Chamberlain in a long list of mothers deemed killers because of "unacceptable maternal behaviour."

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As Watson-Munro explains to Mamamia, the Lane case is particularly interesting because it wasn't a majority verdict. But, he says, if he were to assume the conviction is correct, there was a pattern of behaviour to explain the former water polo player's motive for murder.

Baby Tegan was born to 21-year-old Lane in 1996, and has never been found.

Lane hid five pregnancies in total - terminating two and giving two up for adoption - before she says she gave newborn Tegan to the baby's father while still at hospital.

Keli Lane
Keli Lane in her early twenties. Image via ABC.

The child has never been found.

"Giving children away...two terminations...she clearly didn't embrace the concept of motherhood. She was assessed by a Crown psychiatrist of the prosecution who said there was nothing psychiatrically remarkable about her. So if we assume she is guilty, what are you left with? An individual who murdered a child, and somebody who perhaps felt ashamed about falling pregnant. Another example though, of someone who is not insane, but motivated by self-interest," Watson-Munro says.

Ferguson adds that the Lane case fits the narrative that often arises when women are accused of murdering their children that "if she cared she would cry more."

She muses that it's this type of murder that often attracts scrutiny because "the public doesn't expect women will perpetrate [in this way]" suggesting that if they do, in society's eyes there must be something particularly wicked about them.

LISTEN: Mia Freedman interviews the ABC journalist who re-investigated Lane's case in 2018. 

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More often than not, when a woman murders a child - it's generally an infant - it's normally because of psychosis rather an a desire to murder, Ferguson explains.

Watson-Munro agrees and says, "it's generally about severe depression. Post natal depression...but almost psychotic depression. They are so depressed they lose touch with reality and see no way out. It's a terrible crime."

With this kind of motive, Watson-Munro says it most definitely stems from a lack of funding, treatment and diagnosis options and ability to recognise the extent of the issue in our wider society.

"More needs to be done in terms of funding for treatment, community programs and so on. Often these women feel deeply stigmatised because they are so depressed. It's a pretty extreme thing for a mum to kill her baby. There can be examples where mothers kill older children because they see no way out, but again it's born out of despair and occasionally revenge," he says.

Watson-Munro adds that there's often a strong point of difference in the motives of men who kill children.

"It's a complex blend of dynamics in both male and females of course. But I guess the men I have assessed who have killed kids, they know what they're doing. It's quite deliberate. Rather than being driven by depression, it's driven by rage," he explains.

Behind bars.

Knight has somewhat mellowed behind bars, known as "Nanna" at Silverwater Women's Correctional centre in Western Sydney, and described as maternal and caring by inmates.

James Phelps adds in his book Green Is The New Black, Knight is known as "Queen Bee," has turned religious behind bars, and loves to knit.

The same demeanour can't be said for Butterfield who has continued to injure both herself and staff inside prison walls.

In 2018, the ABC aired Exposed: The Case of Keli Lane, where Lane maintained her innocence and continued to advocate for her freedom.

The documentary put many elements of the prosecution and conviction into question, but what was particularly poignant in the discussion of gender was a comment from the former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC, who, when asked if Lane was a threat to the general community replied: "She seemed to be a bit of a risk to the virile young male portion of the community," with a slight giggle at his own 'joke.'

Since the airing of the controversial comment in the doco-series, Lane's story remains one of much contention among many Australians.

"Many think of it as an unsafe conviction. What’s the reason for that? If you look at the misogyny, it fits with the feminist patriarchal view," Ferguson tells Mamamia."The ones that end up being miscarriages of justice against women are usually because a woman hasn’t acted the way she should have."

Feature Image: Mamamia.

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