Malcolm Thornton was an alcoholic and, during their eighteen month relationship, he was constantly violent and abusive to both Sara and her ten-year-old daughter, Louisa. Sara suffered repeated battering and threats; she asked for help from her doctor, from her local church, from the social services, from Alcoholics Anonymous and from the Marriage Guidance Council. She had called the police to her house at least five times because of Thornton's attacks on her and he was in fact due to appear in court on a charge of assault ten days after he died.
On June 14, 1989, Thornton was drunk, and on Sara's return home he called her a whore and told her to get out and to take her daughter, otherwise Louisa would be “dead meat”. He threatened to kill Sara while she slept and taunted her with a knife.
The threats of violence made Sara fear for her own and for her daughter's life. She went to look for Thornton's old police truncheon but, not finding it, she took a knife. Sara pleaded with her husband to go to bed but when the threats continued she stabbed him once and called an ambulance.
Sara pleaded guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility at the trial, a plea which focused on her own state of mind rather than the beatings she had received. Sara's defence lawyer completely ignored the issue of abused women who respond in self defence and Sara herself was not given the opportunity to contribute much to her own defence. Sara was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
With consent from Sara, Justice for Women staged a demonstration outside the Court of Appeal in July 1991 to support Sara's appeal against her murder conviction. Her lawyers argued that the conviction should be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. Her appeal was refused on the grounds that the 60 seconds it took for her to get the knife did not constitute “a sudden and temporary loss of self-control”. The murder was therefore considered to be premeditated and provocation could not be accepted as a defence. The judge stated that Sara could have “walked out or gone upstairs”, something that is never suggested in cases where men kill their partners. Sara went on hunger strike in protest.
A further appeal was lodged in September 1992, together with the submission of new evidence showing the extent of the domestic violence Sara had suffered and its impact on her mental state. Initially, the Home Secretary refused to grant a further appeal, but in May 1995 this was granted by Michael Howard. On July 28 1995, Sara was freed on bail pending appeal. In December 1995, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, quashed Sara’s murder conviction on the grounds that the judge at her original trial had not directed the jury to consider all the relevant characteristics in the “reasonable man” aspect of the provocation defence and ordered a retrial.
On Friday 29 May 1996, Sara was found not guilty of murder by a jury at Oxford Crown Court. They found her guilty of manslaughter but did not indicate whether it was on grounds of provocation or diminished responsibility or a combination of both. As she had already served over five years in custody, Sara walked free from the court.
The decision by the jury in 1996 reflected the impact of recent changes in the law of provocation as seen in the judgements of Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Emma Humphreys, also supported by Justice for Women.
For media coverage of Sara's case, please visit our press coverage page.