Sara Thornton case

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Sara Thornton
Known forbeing convicted of murder of husband, overturned on appeal

The Sara Thornton case concerns that of Englishwoman Sara Thornton who was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of the 1989 murder of her violent and alcoholic husband. Thornton never denied the killing, but claimed it had been an accident during an argument. The prosecution at her trial argued that she had carried out the act for financial gain, and she was found guilty of murder. The case became a cause célèbre among women's groups, and ignited a political debate on how the courts should deal with the issue of domestic violence. At a retrial in 1996 Thornton was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and freed from custody.

The case[edit]

Malcolm Thornton died in hospital after he was stabbed at the home he shared with his wife Sara on 12 June 1989 following an argument.[1] At her trial in 1990, Sara Thornton pleaded guilty to manslaughter due to reasons of diminished responsibility, claiming that she had stabbed Malcolm accidentally following a row as he lay drunk on the sofa. The court heard that the police had been called to the house in Atherstone, Warwickshire on several occasions when Thornton was being assaulted by her husband. A representative from Alcoholics Anonymous saw Malcolm punch his wife on one occasion, while a neighbour spoke of how Sara Thornton had been beaten "black and blue" to the point where she became unconscious and required hospital treatment. The prosecution claimed that Thornton was a "pathological liar" who had carried out the killing for financial gain, and a jury convicted her of murder. Sentencing her to life imprisonment, the judge told Thornton that she could have walked out of the house or gone upstairs.[2]

Thornton appealed the conviction, but it was rejected in 1991. The original trial had been largely ignored by the media, but Thornton's case was taken up by Justice for Women, who were pressing for a change in the way cases of domestic violence are dealt with by the courts; the group, founded by Harriet Wistrich and Julie Bindel, began life as the "Free Sara Thornton campaign".[3] Following the high-profile campaign, Thornton was eventually granted leave to appeal. At a hearing at the Court of Appeal in December 1995, lawyers argued she was a victim of "battered woman syndrome" as a result of her husband's repeated violence, something which had resulted in her losing control and killing him. Her murder conviction was quashed, and a retrial ordered for the following year.[4]

Thornton faced her second trial in May 1996, and the twelve-day hearing took place at Oxford Crown Court. The prosecution presented evidence that Thornton had talked of killing her husband to a colleague,[1] but psychiatrists successfully argued that Thornton suffered from dissociation—a personality disorder that causes an individual to react inappropriately to events. She was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to five years imprisonment. However, she was released from custody as a result of time already served. Speaking shortly afterwards, Thornton said that she believed her sentence was fair. "I am not saying that every woman should be sent to prison, but for me it was fair. I took a life at the end of the day."[4]

Despite the high-profile campaign, the verdict at Thornton's trial did little to resolve the issue of how the courts should deal with such cases.[4] However, in 2008 the Labour Government of Gordon Brown put forward proposals to look at the issue as part of a planned reform of the laws governing murder.[2]

Cultural impact[edit]

The case was dramatised in the TV film Killing Me Softly which was broadcast within six weeks of Thornton's release in July 1996 on BBC1. The drama appeared under the Screen One strand and was written by Rebecca Frayn and starred Maggie O'Neill and Peter Howitt, based on a book written by Jennifer Nadel.[5][6] It also inspired the song "Woke Up This Morning" by British band Alabama 3, later adopted as the theme song to The Sopranos.[7][8]


  1. ^ a b "Sara Thornton branded 'a pathological liar'". The Independent. London: Independent Print Limited. 14 May 1996. Archived from the original on 6 September 2011. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  2. ^ a b "Spotlight on domestic abuse laws". BBC News. BBC. 29 July 2008. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  3. ^ Cooke, Rachel (30 January 2001). "Snap decisions". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 September 2017.
  4. ^ a b c "Sara Thornton is cleared of murder". The Independent. London: Independent Print Limited. 31 May 1996. Archived from the original on 23 March 2012. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  5. ^ "Don't Screen This Prime Time Travesty". The Daily Mail. 3 July 1996. Retrieved 2015-02-27.
  6. ^ "Killing me softly". WorldCat. OCLC 779047844. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-02-27.
  7. ^ Duncan Campbell, "Face off" Archived 2017-03-09 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian, September 27, 2007.
  8. ^ David Johannson, "Homeward Bound" Those Soprano Titles Come Heavy", in David Lavery, ed., Reading The Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO (I.B. Tauris, 2006), ISBN 978-1845111212, pp. 35–36. Excerpts available Archived 2013-09-26 at the Wayback Machine at Google Books.