“Clayton, you are the epitome of evil.” Sophie Elliott’s father told the man who had brutally stabbed his 22-year-old daughter to death. “I hope her screams of agony ring in your ears as they do mine,” his wife added. Gil and Lesley Elliott were at the sentencing hearing for Clayton Weatherston. Their words spoken after sitting through a month long trial at the High Court in Christchurch, New Zealand listening to Weatherston and his defense team blame Sophie Elliott for her own murder by claiming she provoked Weatherston into attacking her.
On 9 January 2008, Sophie Elliott who had recently graduated from the University of Otago with a first class honours degree in Economics, was at her parent’s home in the city of Dunedin, New Zealand. She had secured a job at the New Zealand Treasury based in Wellington and on that day she was packing up her belongings ready for moving to Wellington the following day. 33-year-old Clayton Weatherston was a research fellow and economics lecturer at the University and the pair had been in a relationship for five months the previous year. Their relationship was not a happy one with two instances of violence from Weatherston towards Sophie alongside continuous psychological abuse. She had ended the relationship with him in December 2007, keen to move on with her life.
When Clayton Weatherston arrived at the front door on the afternoon of 9 January 2008, he told Lesley Elliott he had a present he wanted to give to Sophie before she left. He went upstairs and into Sophie’s bedroom. In the next few minutes, Lesley Elliott would hear shouts from her daughter followed by terrified screaming.
“The words were screamed very loudly – she sounded really frightened, scared and once she started screaming it was a pained scream.”
She ran upstairs and tried desperately to get inside her daughter’s bedroom, unable to break through the door. When she did eventually gain access she discovered Sophie lying on the floor motionless in a pool of blood with Weatherston on top of her continuing to stab her. Lesley Elliott frantically dialed for emergency services screaming down the phone “He’s killed her”.
When police and paramedics arrived, Clayton Weatherston calmly told them “I’ve killed her” when they asked him what had happened. He was arrested at the scene as Sophie was rushed to hospital. Sophie Elliott died from massive blood loss. Her wounds included stab wounds to her eyes and face, her chest and her throat. She had a total of 216 separate injuries inflicted with a knife Weatherston had brought with him to the house and a pair of scissors. The pathologist who testified on her injuries called the assault “a persistent, focused and determined attack,” reported the New Zealand Herald.
Clayton Weatherston admitted the manslaughter of Sophie Elliott, telling police she had caused him emotional pain over the previous months. When the case got to trial in June 2009, an already horrific murder was made even more shocking when Weatherston used a murder defense of provocation, suggesting there was no pre-meditation in the crime and he was provoked into the savage assault during an argument with Sophie inside her bedroom.
The provocation defense indicates that actions from the victim have caused ‘any reasonable person’ to experience ‘a sudden and temporary loss of self-control’, and is a defense understandably many found unbelievable considering the brutal nature of this crime and severity of the injuries inflicted.
The Otago Daily Times reported that during the trial Dr. Robert Alexander, Sophie’s degree dissertation supervisor during 2007 and a colleague of Clayton Weatherston, testified that Sophie had raised issues with Weatherston’s behaviour towards her. She had referred to repeated instances of him ‘putting her down’ in front of others and calling her stupid. Dr. Alexander also highlighted Weatherston was not in line for a full lectureship with the university due to “bad relationships with other members of the department” and he had shown a fierce competitive nature which did not always sit well within the University.
Clayton Weatherston’s defense was rejected and he was found guilty of murder on 26 July 2009. In September the same year he was sentenced to 18 years in prison with no possibility of parole.
This case reignited the debate regarding the use of the provocation defense. “This trial turned justice inside out. The killer became the victim and Sophie Elliott was portrayed to us all as he chose to describe her. “ Women’s Refuge Chief Executive Heather Henare said after the verdict. “The provocation defense is based on absolutely archaic notions about violence. Once upon a time, society accepted that an affront to male privilege or dignity was a reasonable excuse to fly into a homicidal rage,” she continued.
Two months after Weatherston’s sentencing, the defense was fully abolished in New Zealand through the Crimes (Provocation Repeal) Amendment Bill in November 2009, with Justice Minister Simon Power commenting, “It effectively provides a defense for lashing out in anger, not just any anger but violent, homicidal rage. It rewards lack of self-control by enabling an intentional killing to be categorized as something other than murder.”
Sophie’s parents have campaigned for more awareness of abusive relationships, especially for young women, setting up the Sophie Elliott Foundation. The Foundation’s website highlights some shocking statistics on partner violence in younger people, including the findings of one study that 48% of couples aged just 21-years-old reported experiencing physical partner violence and that 66% of women seeking Women’s Refuge help were between 17 and 35 years old. Furthermore, they highlight that “On average a woman in New Zealand dies every 26 days at the hands of her current or former partner.”
Sadly, across the world these statistics on women being killed by their ex-partners are staggering, with many of these cases featuring abuse within the relationship in the months and years before the murder.
Nothing can bring Sophie Elliott back or heal the pain felt by her family and friends by the horror of her death and the ordeal they were put through during the trial of the man who killed her. Their admirable and courageous work raising awareness amongst youngsters on healthy relationships and how they can identify the warning signs of an abusive relationship as early as possible, is work which could prevent such a tragedy reoccurring. Lesley Elliott has said to all those questioning their relationship, “If you think you are unsafe, then you probably are.”