'Tracey says I glow as I read your letters'

Sara Thornton, jailed for killing her violent husband, corresponded with George Delf as she battled to prove her innocence. They fell in love. A second extract from their book of letters appears tomorrow
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Last week, a jury found Sara Thornton not guilty of murdering her alcoholic husband, Malcolm, whom she stabbed with a carving knife in June 1989. She was instead convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to five years' imprisonment and, having already served five and a half years of the life sentence imposed on her in 1990, walked free. Mr Justice Scott Baker told her: "I sentence you on the basis that your responsibility for killing your husband was diminished by your abnormality of mind."

So ended a case that took two appeals and two trials to resolve and became a cause celebre for women's groups. Sara Thornton argued consistently that she had been a victim of violence at the hands of her husband. In August 1990, she wrote a letter to the Independent from Durham Prison explaining her situation. Her husband, she wrote, drank heavily and repeatedly attacked her. At the end of one particularly violent weekend, she stabbed him, without any intention to kill; had the complaints she made many times about her husband's violence been taken seriously by police, she argued, the killing would never have happened.

Her letter was read by George Delf, a journalist and author who was interested in her case. He wrote to her, she replied and so began an extraordinarily intense and revealing correspondence - and a love affair - that sustained her in the months leading up to her first, unsuccessful, appeal.

August 1990

Dear Sara Thornton,

I was interested to see your letter in yesterday's Independent. You may not need any more outside help, but if there is anything useful I can do, I will gladly do it. The sooner you are free, the better.

I am a journalist and author and have played a part in various pressure groups. I have a special interest in issues to do with justice and have some knowledge of the law (my last book was related to nuclear policies and the law, 1985).

I wonder if you come from this area? I live 20 miles or so from Durham. If you ever want a visitor, I'd be glad to see you.

I know one of the Appeal Court judges! We were at school together many years ago and I haven't seen him since, but sent him a copy of the book I mentioned (it is heavily critical of lawyers and judges). He sent back quite a friendly letter saying it was "interesting and provocative"! If you think I may be able to help, please let me know.

With best wishes

Sincerely, George Delf

Dear George Delf,

Your letter shouted at me across the dining table today. In most prisons, inmates are restricted to four sides of paper, so one's writing becomes smaller ...

I've been in prison five months (since Friday, 23 February), three months at Risley remand, the rest here. I have spoken to many women who, like myself, lived with violent men and, when denied assistance or support, cracked and committed murder, manslaughter, whatever you wish to call it. I never realized how widespread it is, how many children suffer the loss of both parents, how ignored we are.

Despite the tragedy of my marriage, I loved my husband very much. Like all or many alcoholics, he was a deeply sensitive man, who never hit me when sober. He never physically hurt my daughter. She is now in California with my sister Billi. It strikes me that we are breeding our next generation of wife-beaters, children who grow up to believe that violence is a normal way of life. In order to stop this (don't I sound arrogant?), I feel that society's view of women must change. At present, it is fairly acceptable for a man to beat his wife. As long as they do it behind closed doors...

I am not interested in me - I want to change the law. In Canada, I believe, if a couple are involved in a domestic situation where police are summoned, both must go for counselling. By law. Experts argue that counselling is ineffective unless voluntary. Personally, I disagree. But as long as men know that they can safely beat their wives, they will continue to do so.

Many women have asked me why I didn't skip the country. Bail was a mere pounds 2,000 and I reported to the police station in Coventry once a week. Simply because I never believed I would be found guilty of murder. You ask if I come from Durham. I am in prison in Durham because it is the top security prison for 30 of Britain's "most dangerous women". Most lifers start here.

I was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. My mother was a marine biologist, my father a civil servant in Fiji. Daddy was for a time Governor, Mummy worked for the Hawaii Marine Laboratories. Returned aged 14, educated at Millfield, Somerset.

I guess you could say I am not your average British housewife; my eccentricities did me little good during my trial. I have a healthy disrespect for authority (that looks worse than it is) and I am at a loss as how to proceed from here. I have no outside help, apart from the friends I have left behind. My solicitor has just written to me and in legal language told me to shut up and quietly get on with my sentence. Every letter from my probation officer ends with, "Sara, please behave. Be good." All I have to go on is my faith in God and the overwhelming feeling that I just have to do something...

Defence in a domestic murder is a very delicately balanced issue (I'm tired). If one puts the violence forward too strongly, then the jury feel that you had a good reason to murder. My Counsel decided it was a safer bet to plead guilty to manslaughter while balance of the mind was disturbed. Consequently, two eminent psychiatrists took the stand and made me sound as mad as a hatter. When the Prosecution Counsel, in cross examination, said that anything less than life would give me 'a licence to kill', I thought, 'Broadmoor, here I come.' We adjourned and asked for a re-trial. It was denied.

My husband's violence was very understated. I was made out to be a tart, and a greedy, cold-blooded murderer. I'm really not surprised the jury believed it. So now they just want to say sorry and all that, you are in the system. I guess eventually, in about 10 years' time, they'll let me out the other end, thoroughly cowed, demoralized, and no use to anyone.

I'd like it very much if you came to visit. I am allowed one visit a fortnight. I use a lot of my allowance to speak to my daughter once a month, but as I've been here nearly three months and haven't had a visit yet, my Visitor's Order balance must be in credit. I am sure you would have lots of questions to ask me. I'll answer them as best I can...

Sincerely, Sara E. Thornton

Dear Sara,

I was very glad to meet you yesterday. Not having been inside a prison before, I expected you to be in some sort of uniform, so it was a pleasant surprise to find you looking pretty and smart in your own clothes! The visiting area was quite a friendly space, too, considering.

I expect we were both quite tense at first, for many reasons, but I found you easy to talk to and began to understand more about you and your case. There are so many facts and events and comments, though, that I need a bit of time to sort them out I want you to know that I am basically on your side - if you want me to do what I can to help, please tell me.

We must try to be honest about these visits. If you feel at any stage they are a waste of time (and there may be others you want to visit), just tell me. There is no need to be polite! I am interested in your case and the wider problems around it, but not sure yet whether anything I can do will be much use...

With my best wishes, George

Dear George,

Tomorrow is my anniversary. I'll have been in prison six months. It doesn't seem possible. The PO told me that I can expect a tariff of nine to 16 years, so looking on the bright side, only eight and a half years to go. Time enough to do a Masters in Psychology, roll perfect fags, and figure out where the odd socks go when you do a load of washing! Think positive, that's the secret!...

I love your letters, even if you can't help me, which I don't think for one minute, just keep writing. Some letters are just letters, very pleasant and all that, some letters caress one's spirit, and can be read over and over. Tracey says I glow when I read your letters.

No, I haven't been in prison before! That's a major point in my favour, no criminal record, no record of violence...

I will, before your next visit, write out and post the sequence of events that led to Malcolm's death. It's painful, George, but I'll do it.

For your next visit, I'll dress normally. I've put my peach trousers back into property. We are allowed four sets of clothes out in one go. I'm afraid I like to wear my gym stuff most of the time ...

Regards, Sara E.

Dear George,

Good to see you this afternoon. My full attention didn't come with me, no insult to you, George. I can't stop thinking about Luise [her daughter] and her birthday. I remember how tremendously excited she used to be in the days leading up to it, the endless questions and little hints from me as to what I had bought her. Icing her cake; the last one was a strawberry cheesecake, we stuck the candles in whole strawberries. Very popular choice.

All this is remembered with ineffable sadness ... I feel bogged down, unable to formulate even the simplest plans. I've just lost my spirit. I shall probably sob my heart out on Sunday after I speak with her, and feel better next week. It's only a temporary defeat. Write me some strong encouraging words, George - don't criticise me. I feel emotionally battered, vulnerable.

When I went to the hospital yesterday, I seemed to see children everywhere. Brown, blond-haired, in T-shirts, lovely summer children. I could have scooped one up in my arms. I have a list of things I miss in prison: rain, olives; I never thought about it, but I haven't seen a child for six months...

General consensus of opinion is that I should: a) fight for my own freedom, and b) change solicitors. Can I change Counsel, too? Faced with the possibility of 10 years in prison, you find that one suppresses all desire for the outside world. I've done that very well. When I went out yesterday, looking at the world through the windows of the bus, I didn't feel a part of it. It was like watching something on TV. If that's what six months can do, how do you think a person would be after a few years? Do you want to visit again? Let me know, I'll send you a VO. I hope you do.


September 1990

Dear George,

Congratulations, you finally wrote me a letter that had no mention of 'old', 'father-daughter', etc. Has it finally sunk in? How many hints must I write? I can't be as forthright as you - circumstances, insecurities, but I'm certain I feel as you do, and probably have for a lot longer. I just didn't realise. Everyone close to me did, though, which makes it doubly infuriating. I expected to feel many varying emotions in prison, but not this. I'm walking round in a daze half of the time, with a lunatic grin on my face!

But it's hard, I'm torn between elation and nagging doubt ...Reading your last letter again, may I point out, Mr Delf, that if I should ever find myself in a forest in Finland sharing a sleeping bag with you, playing the guitar is not an occupation that springs to mind...

Lots of love, Sara x

Dear Sara,

It was good to get your letter this a.m. - it and the one I got yesterday make a very good combination - all sides of you, happy, high-spirited, 'chastened' and thoughtful. Don't you realize yet that I love you which means all my (mildly) critical comments exist in a context which is warm and supportive and loving. Where would you sleep here? Either with me or out with the owls. Take your choice.

Much love, George


Have you ever had a flash of understanding that was so deep it took your breath away?

Lying here thinking about prisons, Daddy, Mummy, me. Your comment about loving me and any criticisms being in the context of love, etc. I don't know that sort of criticism. Then it hit me - of course I don't. As a child, all criticism was demoralising, degrading. Mostly from Mummy. Then I started thinking that my real prison is the past, the way I think of myself - why Daddy doesn't love me (us); why does he always call me a liar, etc. Well, it hit me. Whenever Mummy had been hitting us, she always explained our crimes, punishment (whip, locked in room/cupboard, no supper, etc) were because we had been naughty, lying, cheating, etc. I guess Daddy believed her or wanted to. Poor Daddy, poor us. I feel like crying.

When I cut my throat, Billi found out several months later, and when she asked Daddy about it, his comment was, pity she didn't succeed! I'm not such a bad person that I deserve my own father to say that about me. God, that hurts even now. I don't want to store a catalogue of grievances - but I know now why I married Malcolm - Daddy approved, I finally belonged. I was accepted. Daddy even visited my house in Atherstone and thought Malcolm a "super chap" (he'd just come out of the clinic). I lived five years in Coventry as a single parent - Daddy never even phoned me.

The only time Daddy was nice to me was when he was drunk - or had been drinking heavily. Maybe just maybe that's why I tolerated Malcolm's drinking for so long!...

Love you, Sara x

October 1990


I looked for him, but too late, he had gone. I wanted to say, 'If you want to see a life sentence being carried out, why not go to our home and see the children, broken by untimely separation from their mother? Why not come at visiting times and see screaming young children being dragged out after their one and a half hours every fourteen days with mum - whilst inmates weep and officers block their ears? Why not come after 8p.m. and tiptoe round the landings to hear women cry tears of guilt and agony alone behind locked doors?' Because he doesn't want the truth, he wants the platitudes he delivers, and receives from us! I was so cross with myself at missing this golden opportunity that I sat and wrote a furious letter to him.

I wish I could have shouted what I've written above from the second or third landing. The effect would have been electric - and would in all probability have started other women off. Instead, like justice itself - it was all a charade! No doubt he now feels, after one hour in H-wing, well qualified to dish out life sentences left, right and centre.

I've decided that on domestic visits, if you talk too much I'll just kick you, effectively shutting us both up and affording us a little bit of silence... When I get out, you can kiss all my other moles! It's 12.25 am.

All my love, Sara xx

'Love on the Wing, Letters of hope from prison' by Sara Thornton and George Delf, will be published by Penguin on 17 June, price pounds 6.99