A Columbia man became the first person convicted under Maryland's year-old spousal rape law when he pleaded guilty this week to two assaults on his estranged wife.

Howard County prosecutors said yesterday that they plan to ask that Theron Armstrong Feggans, 30, be given a seven-year prison sentence, with four years suspended, for second-degree rape. Feggans, who now has been separated from his wife for a year, was charged with raping her at her apartment in Savage on April 28 and May 9.

Assistant State's Attorney Kate O'Donnell said Feggans put a butter knife to his wife's throat in the first attack, forced a pillow over her face and choked her with his hands.

Feggans was arrested after the second attack, when his wife told a co-worker and her case came to the attention of legal counselors at a women's shelter in Baltimore.

Feggans pleaded guilty in Howard County Circuit Court on Wednesday to a charge in one of two indictments under a state law that took effect in July 1989. It was aimed at eliminating marriage as a defense when a husband is charged with raping his wife.

Until then, Maryland was one of a dozen states that did not permit prosecution of a husband for sexually assaulting his wife.

Under the new law, if couples have been separated for six months, marriage is no longer a defense. If the couple lives together, the man can be charged only if force is used.