LONDON -- Sara Thornton entered the 12th day of her hunger strike in the Holloway prison here yesterday, and her woeful face is bothering Britain's conscience. It poses the question whether men and women are equal before the law.
She is 36 years old and a murderer. She put a knife into her husband, Malcolm, while he was drunk. He had abused her during the 10 months of their marriage: On one occasion he knocked her unconscious; on another he broke a glass over her head. He was forever taunting her; he called her a whore.
On June 4, 1989, Malcolm told Sara Thornton he would kill her and her 12-year-old daughter, Louise. She killed him first.
The jury believed her story, but in Britain, far behind the United States in recognizing the so-called battered spouse syndrome, they had no choice but to convict her of murder. It brought her a mandatory life sentence. That means at least nine years before she is eligible for release.
Her last appeal was rejected July 29.
Two days later, a judge miles away in Birmingham freed Joseph McGrail after he was found guilty of kicking to death his verbally abusive common-law wife while she was drunk. The judge could do so because McGrail was convicted of manslaughter, which has no mandatory sentence.
It was about all Sara Thornton could take. On Aug. 3, she stopped eating.
Sara Thornton's case, or possibly its contrast with the McGrail case, has sown doubt and aroused debate at every level of society, for it suggests a double standard of justice.
As a consequence, the law under which Sara Thornton was convicted, the 1957 Homicide Act, is being examined and debated.
Hers is only the most recent of a series of similar verdicts against women in British courts. The uproar they have provoked seems likely to drive the courts toward further intervention in the area of family violence.
In 1989, Kiranjit Ahluwalia was convicted of murder for burning herhusband to death. For 10 years he had beaten, raped and burned her. The year before, Amelia Rossiter got life for stabbing her husband to death as he tried to strangle her.
"I would say this country lags behind the United States in terms of debate about violence against women and the response of the criminal justice system," said Pragna Patel, the head of Southhall Black Sisters, a women's defense group.
Ms. Patel pointed out that only last year did a court here rule that rape in marriage was a crime. That ruling, she said, opened a way for courts to move more vigorously into the area of spousal abuse. But they have not rushed ahead.
Most women's groups here believe that women do not do as well as men when they come before the courts in domestic cases.
"They get a raw deal," said Hilary McCollun, who heads the Campaign to Free Sara Thornton.
"It is not just the fact that all the judges, or most of them, are men," she said. "It is that the legal definitions are made by men."
No firm statistics have been produced yet to prove that men get off more readily than women in cases of spouse murder, though there certainly are more female victims. In 1989, the last year for which figures are available, 90 wives, common-law or otherwise, were slain by their spouses, while women killed 10 of their mates.
But the belief that men are treated more leniently by the courts in these cases is strong and widespread.
"There is anecdotal evidence that this is the case," said Rohit Sanghui, the lawyer who guided Sara Thornton's failed appeal. "If you take any 30-odd cases, it will show this to be so."
In other words, the contrast between the McGrail and Thornton cases is not an anomaly.
Mr. Sanghui's argument, rejected by the Court of Appeal, focused on the one element in the 1957 Homicide Act that might have mitigated Sara Thornton's sentence by having her convicted of manslaughter instead of murder.
He said she had been provoked by the months of abuse. The court said provocation can only be accepted as a defense if the death blow bursts out of a "sudden and temporary" loss of control, an explosion of murderous rage.
But Sara Thornton had run away from her husband into the kitchen. She had sharpened a knife. Then she returned to the living room, and after further argument, plunged it in. The killing, according to the court, was premeditated.
That ruling has ignited a demand for revision of the law and reinterpretation of the response to provocation.
"Men's responses to provocation are different," said Mr. Sanghui. "When they kill their spouses, they are able to show they went into a frenzied attack, kicking [as McGrail did], punching, grabbing whatever weapon is at hand. Women don't behave like that. They can't. When they do, they are easily subdued by a man. Women battered over a period of time will strike the fatal blow when the man is in a weak and vulnerable position, when he is asleep or drunk."
Nearly all the women's groups who support Sara Thornton profess to understand women's behavior in this way. The rejection of her appeal, according to Ms. Patel, not only failed to advance the cause of battered spouses, but also moved the whole issue backward.
The argument has aroused support in many quarters, some of them very influential, including the judge who framed the current law, Lord Alfred Denning.
"Today, in light of how much more we know about women's experiences, I would direct the jury to consider the circumstances of the case," he told the Observer. "And although the crime may not have been committed in the heat of the moment, the effect of prolonged violence over the years may well result in provocation."