They both killed their partners. But which one got life?

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HERE ARE two people who killed their partners, with their grim stories of abuse and desperation and rage. One of them is called David Hampson. He is a railway clerk who lives in Cambridgeshire. Hampson killed his wife, Claire, two years ago by smashing her head with a hammer. He then buried her in the garden. Last week, he got six years for manslaughter, and is likely to serve three years. The other is called Zoora Shah. Zoora Shah killed her boyfriend Mohammed Azam seven years ago by putting arsenic in his food. She was given a life sentence for murder, and at an appeal last year she was refused a retrial.

What is it that gets one killer off so easily and condemns another to life in jail? Frankly, if you look at their stories, it's hard to see much difference between them - except that on every point of comparison Shah seems to have by far the more compelling claim on our mercy.

And the more closely you look at the two cases, the more you begin to wonder what it is about the legal system that means that Zoora Shah must suffer, while David Hampson can be treated so leniently.

Hampson got away with a reduced charge, without even going through a jury trial, because the judge accepted that his wife was a nagging bitch. "You suffered at the hands of this woman, your wife, in a variety of ways and you were provoked into doing what you did," said the judge. "Your wife behaved towards you in a way which was calculated to impact on your mind."

Hampson had said that his wife nagged him, criticised him and ridiculed him for years, and that he finally lost control during a prolonged "torrent of abuse". It can't be comfortable to live with a critical and argumentative partner, but a lot of people do - and who would see such a situation as grounds for murder, rather than, say, separation?

In contrast, look at what Zoora Shah said about her partner. He started their relationship when she was absolutely desperate. She had come to England for an arranged marriage, but after a few years her husband had left her and she was living in a squalid rented room in Bradford with three tiny children, two of whom had tuberculosis, speaking not a word of English. Azam offered her a decent place to live, but in return he exploited her sexually, even pimping her to other men and beating her up.

So could not such behaviour have meant that Zoora Shah, too, suffered in a variety of ways? Might it not have had an impact on her mind? And might it not have provoked her into doing what she did?

The story of Shah's abuse was not laid before the jury on her first trial, because she felt too ashamed to speak about it. But when her case went to the Court of Appeal, the judges were unable to accept it, and refused her a fresh jury trial. They clearly felt that it was way too unlikely that a man would behave like that towards a vulnerable woman.

Neither Hampson nor Shah could offer their judges much corroborating evidence about the behaviour of their spouses. Hampson had the word of a few neighbours who thought his wife was cold or had heard arguments. But Mohammed Azam was not exactly a pillar of the community - he was, in fact, a convicted heroin trafficker who had spent years in jail.

And Zoora Shah had hospital records of the black eyes and sexually transmitted diseases she had suffered during her relationship with him. Were these likely to have been self-inflicted?

David Hampson got off his murder charge, and even the need to go through a jury trial, by offering to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and he had GP and hospital records from the time that testify to his clinical depression. But he quickly recovered from this depression that led him to smash a woman's skull, and soon started a new relationship. For two years, he coolly lived with his wife's corpse buried in the garden, making his eight-year-old daughter collude in lies about her whereabouts.

Zoora Shah sounds rather more fragile. It's hardly surprising if she became depressed: here was a woman at the end of her tether, being beaten up and raped by her boyfriend, and who really might have felt she had no way out, given that she spoke no English, had no money and three children who depended on her. She knew she would lose her home if Azam left her, and she knew that she would be ostracised by her community if she spoke about the sexual exploitation she was suffering.

During her relationship with Azam, her children remember her lying in bed weeping for hours, sobbing that her life was ruined. The people in the Muslim community for whom she worked as a home help remember her desperate depression during those years, and that she seemed malnourished and impoverished.

She was using sleeping tablets and tranquillisers, frequently visiting her doctor with fainting fits and panic attacks, and her GP said in the Court of Appeal that he had never known a woman to cry like she did. But all this evidence for her disturbed state of mind didn't convince her judges to order a retrial.

David Hampson is a white man and his story was accepted by the prosecution and the judge. The question appeared to them to be so clear-cut that there was no need for a jury.

Zoora Shah is Pakistani, a woman, and illiterate, and three judges in the Court of Appeal did not believe that there was enough in her story even to put the question to a jury.

The contrast inevitably fuels the belief, widely held among the black community, that British criminal justice is a white person's - and particularly a white man's - system.

And is it entirely out of the question that male judges might more easily give credence to the tale of a nagging wife than the tale of an abusive boyfriend because of their own personal prejudices about what is acceptable in a wife and what is acceptable in a boyfriend?

But why is so much power vested in the hands of so few men? In each of these cases - David Hampson's hearing and Zoora Shah's appeal - the legal hierarchy decided not to bother with a jury trial.

But surely a jury should have been called upon to decide whether or not David Hampson really couldn't have stopped himself picking up that hammer, or whether Zoora Shah is really a hardened murderer. That is the only way that our strange legal system can avoid its current appearance of outrageous bias.

At the weekend, Zoora Shah's daughter Naseem was given an award, the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, for the work she has done in trying to get justice for her mother. I met her at the award ceremony on Saturday, with her friends from Southall Black Sisters and Justice for Women, two organisations that have campaigned over the years for justice for Shah and women like her.

Naseem is a beautiful, composed 25-year-old. "I can never accept what happened to my mum," she said quietly. "I'm angry now. Before I was confused, but now I'm angry. I want something done. I want to see my mum out of jail. I want to see her get justice. It's disgusting. The system failed my mum. The judges just sat up there on their high benches and they don't know anything about what women go through, what my mum went through."

The prize given to Naseem Shah was set up in memory of Emma Humphreys, who was convicted of murder of her abusive pimp and subsequently had the conviction overturned on appeal. "Her story shows that women can fight the system. It makes me feel optimistic," Naseem said determinedly. "Because we must do something."