Finding one’s wife in the act of committing adultery, flying into a rage, and killing her or her lover is probably not a murder. At least that is the way American law has treated that scenario. Passion killing is an old term that used to designate small set of circumstances, like finding your wife with another man, in which intentional killing did not amount to murder. These circumstances, including such chivalrous acts as ‘mutual combat’ and ‘resisting illegal arrest’ were fixed, and they could drastically reduce your sentence.
The distinctions that structure our law are often also the distinctions that structure our shared values, and sometimes in the middle of a criminal law class, you can get an insight into those values.
My Criminal Law Professor, Kari Hong, pointed out that the old list of passion killing provocations was very patriarchal (and hetero-normative, but I digress). The categories remind me of the days that it was legitimate to challenge someone to a duel to defend your honor. They seem out of place in a world where hand-to-hand combat is (hopefully) more rare.
We still recognize the distinction between murder and passion killing (voluntary manslaughter), but the passions that count have somewhat changed. Rather than a list of circumstances, criminal law separates killings that arise in the heat of passion from murder.
One defendant successfully mitigated her murder charge down to involuntary manslaughter because she was able to show that she was terrified when her former lover arrived at her home in a drunken rage. She was able to convince a court of appeals that, in her shoes, they just might have done the same thing.
Amidst all the assigning of blame and the charges of malice, depraved hearts, and indifference to human life, this is a moment when the court sees the defendant as a human being with passions—fear, rage, frustration.
In such a circumstance, horrible though it may be, killing is ‘an understandable human response deserving of mercy.’ (People v. Casassa)
It is good to see that laws and the policies behind them change. We are not forever wedded to ways of thinking that have long proved to be harmful. This is not to say that some patriarchal ideas and biases aren’t still going to shape whose passion is warranted and whose is not.
But instead of a worn ideal of honor in passion killing, the law now sets aside a place for mercy.
Amelia Wirts is pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at Boston College. She has already spent four years working toward her PhD, focusing on political philosophy, moral theory, and philosophy of law. She is especially concerned with the gender-based and racial injustices imbedded in the legal system. You can email her at ameliawirts[at]gmail[dot]com if you are interested in pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at BC, or if you too are moved by the rational imperative to make our shared world a more just place.