Argus title : The long struggle for justice
A few days ago, the Argus reported that a film has gone on general release about Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who came to Crawley in 1979. Her parents were dead and she had been persuaded by her brothers into an arranged marriage.
On an almost daily basis, over ten years of marriage she experienced extreme physical, mental and sexual violence at the hands of her husband, Deepak. He kept her virtually imprisoned, controlling every action.
Kiranjit was kicked, punched and slapped, beaten with belts, shoes and pieces of furniture, threatened with knives and hot irons and nearly strangled. Her husband smashed her fingers, beat her while she was pregnant, broke her teeth, and ripped out chunks of her hair. She was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted.
Kiranjit’s two sons were also subject to threats and violence and witnessed the assaults on their mother. She sought help from her family but was told to go back and be a “good wife”. She ran away, but Deepak found her and brought her back. She sought help from her GP and applied for court injunctions, but nothing protected her.
Finally, on 9th May 1989, she could stand it no more. A few hours after Deepak’s last assault upon her, she set fire to his bed while he slept. She said she did not intend to kill him, but he died 10 days later. The trial judge declared that the violence she had experienced was “not serious” and the prosecutor said she had just been “knocked about”.
Defence lawyers argued she had experienced “provocation”, but because there had been a lapse of a few hours between the last assault upon her and the fire, the court decided there had been a “cooling down period”. She was found guilty of murder and imprisoned for life.
Crawley Women’s Centre alerted campaigning group Southall Black Sisters who launched a campaign for her release. At about the same time another London-based campaigning organization “Justice for Women” began a high-profile campaign to free Sara Thornton, a woman who had killed her violent alcoholic husband.
On the night she killed him, Malcolm Thornton was drunk and threatened Sara and her 10 year old daughter with a knife. Sara went to the kitchen, found a knife, and returned. His threats continued and she stabbed him.
She was charged with murder. Despite the fact she had sought help from her doctor and numerous agencies and had called the police to her house at least 5 times, the history of domestic violence was not presented in court. She was found guilty of murder and imprisoned for life.
In July 1991 Sara Thornton went to the Appeal Court asking that the charge be reduced to one of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. The appeal was refused on the grounds that the 60 seconds it took her to get the knife did not constitute a “sudden and temporary loss of control“, as the provocation defence requires, and had given time for “reason to be restored”.
The effect of terror and the trauma and psychological damage created by repeated beatings were not taken into account. The Appeal Judge stated that Sara could have “walked out or gone upstairs”. Campaigners remarked wryly that they had never known a case in which a man who had killed his wife had been told this. Sara Thornton went on hunger strike in protest.
In the same week that Sara Thornton’s appeal was refused, a man who had killed his alcoholic common-law wife was given a suspended sentence. Marion Kennedy had reportedly been verbally abusive when drunk, but there had been no allegations of physical violence. Joseph McGrail had come home to find her drunk and demanding drink. He dragged her into a bedroom and kicked her to death while she lay on a bed.
Mr Justice Popplewell told McGrail, who admitted manslaughter on grounds of provocation, “This lady would have tried the patience of a saint”. He imposed a two year prison sentence suspended for 2 years with a 12 month supervision order to help McGrail “overcome his feelings of remorse”.
The different outcomes of the cases sparked a public outcry. It also served to highlight key issues which continue to be debated today. The first is that men’s greater physical strength allows them to kill without weapons using their hands or feet – usually by strangulation, punching or kicking.
The second is that even if there has been a previous history of domestic violence, violent husbands who kill their wives have been able to use the provocation defence claiming that they have experienced a “sudden and temporary loss of control”. Defence lawyers usually suggest this arises from “jealousy”, being “taunted about their sexual performance” or “nagging”.
Women on the other hand, being less physically strong and having in most cases been educated to comply with male demands, rarely kill, whatever the provocation. However, if they do, they almost always use an implement, tool or weapon. The time it takes them to fetch or even lift such an implement, even if it takes a matter of seconds, usually denies them the option of claiming “sudden and temporary loss of control”.
A nation-wide campaign began. In Brighton women set up the “Friends of Sara Thornton” and launched it with a 24 hour hunger strike. The group campaigned for the release of Sara Thornton and subsequently for that of Kiranjit Ahluwalia.
There were demonstrations and a petition and in November 1991 a vigil was held in a local church, involving people of all faiths and none. Trade unions began to lend their support. Local women and men traveled to London to demonstrate in support of the imprisoned women. Val Grozier, a local teacher and singer, composed the “Song for Kiranjit” which was performed locally and nationally.
Eventually the campaign began to bear fruit. Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s appeal was granted in 1992 on the grounds that expert evidence and psychiatric reports had not been presented at the original trial. A retrial was ordered and on 25th September 1992 Kiranjit was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She was sentenced to 3 years and 4 months imprisonment and was released immediately.
The struggle to free Sara Thornton continued. A further appeal was lodged in September 1992, together with the submission of new evidence showing the extent of the domestic violence she had suffered and its impact on her mental state. In December 1995, Taylor, Lord Chief Justice, quashed her murder conviction on the grounds that the judge at her original trial had not directed the jury to consider all the relevant characteristics of the provocation defence and ordered a retrial.
On Friday 29 May 1996, Sara was found guilty of manslaughter and freed. She had served over five years in custody.
These two cases were of seminal importance in changing public attitudes to domestic violence. The provocation defence is still misused by violent men (two of whom kill partners and ex-partners each week) but police and prosecution lawyers are now more likely to present evidence of previous domestic violence.
In the case of the small number of women who kill partners, the issue of prior domestic violence is usually now investigated. And judges are now more circumspect about the remarks they make about victims. There is a continuing debate about provocation, with many campaigners calling for an end to the use of alleged “infidelity”, “sexual taunting” or “nagging” as grounds for provocation pleas. This is a battle that has not yet been won.
Here in Brighton campaign bore local fruit. The Friends of Sara Thornton developed into the “Brighton Campaign Against Domestic Violence” which drew together individuals from such organizations as Threshold, the Womens’ Centre and Brighton Women’s Aid. In September 1993 in Brighton CADV held a major conference on domestic violence and called for a co-ordinated local strategy to deal with domestic violence.
When Women’s Aid closed down shortly thereafter, CADV worked with other women’s organizations to set up the Women’s Refuge Project with the aim of securing grant aid and ensuring Brighton’s refuge would not be lost. The Refuge Project (Helpline:622822) is now a successful and established charity offering comprehensive services to women and children.
As for Kiranjit Ahluwalia, she did not indulge in any misplaced triumphalism after her release. She expressed deep regret about the terrible death her husband had suffered and returned quietly to care for her two sons.
It’s right that having remained silent for so long, she has co-operated with Southall Black Sisters to record this period of history. The campaign to free her has played a vital part in the long struggle against domestic violence – and for women’s equality before the law.