Killing of Sexual Partners as Mere Manslaughter:

When can killing a sexual partner or a former sexual partner qualify as mere "voluntary manslaughter" rather than murder under American law? Some of the comments to my honor killing post led me to want to elaborate further on this.

1. Most states — though not the several states that have adopted the Model Penal Code "extreme mental or emotional disturbance" formulation — specify that this sort of killing is voluntary manslaughter only if it's in the "heat of passion." But while some states limit this to situations where the killer has just immediately caught the victim (either the killer's sexual partner or the person with whom the partner is cheating) in the act, other states take (or recently have taken) a different view.

No need to witness adulterous act: Thus, for instance, Commonwealth v. Schnopps, 417 N.E.2d 1213 (Mass. 1981), holds that a spouse's killing of a spouse can be voluntary manslaughter when it immediately follows the victim's oral admission of adultery. Anderson v. State, 507 So. 2d 580 (Ala. Ct. Crim. App. 1987), overruled by Knight v. State, 907 So. 2d 470 (Ala. Ct. Crim. App. 2005), held that a spouse's killing of a spouse can be voluntary manslaughter when the killer "visualized [the wife] standing nude at the foot of [another man]'s bed" — based on the wife's refusing to accompany him home after a family visit to the other man's mobile home — and then went home, got his shotgun, drove to a store to buy shotgun shells, and later went back to the other man's home and shot the wife and the other man.

Time delay between confession of adultery and killing: Likewise, People v. Berry, 556 P. 2d 777 (Cal. 1975), concluded that a delay of 20 hours between the confession of adultery (and a desire to leave the marriage) and the killing didn't preclude a finding of manslaughter, at least when the victim had engaged in "a long course of provocatory conduct."

2. As best I can tell, most states don't limit the defense to adultery, but also allow it when the killer and the victim aren't married. Goforth v. State, 523 S.E.2d (Ga. 1999). This may be sensible, but I mention it to rebut the suggestion that the breaking of a marriage vow is somehow uniquely serious and thus specially justifies the doctrine.

3. Most troubling of all, there are quite a few cases in which a voluntary manslaughter theory was found legally warranted simply because a sexual partner had left the relationship, without any evidence of cheating. See, e.g., State v. Little, 462 A.2d 117 (N.H. 1983); People v. Guevara, 521 N.Y.S.2d 292 (App. Div. 1987). Fortunately, many states would not allow the theory in such cases, but some do.

4. Some commenters suggested that honor killings are especially culpable because they are "celebrated" by the community, in a way that manslaughters aren't. That would be reason to condemn the community that celebrates such killings; but I saw no evidence of such celebration in the Georgia story I cited to. And while I don't know of a tradition of celebrating a man's killing his unfaithful wife or girlfriend, my sense is that there are unfortunately some subcultures in the U.S. where such a killing would be at least to some extent condoned, even though not celebrated.

5. To my knowledge, the voluntary manslaughter theory has not been applied in the U.S. to parents killing their children because of their children's misconduct, though as I mentioned the "extreme mental or emotional distress" formulation of voluntary manslaughter might apply even to such situations. But the premise of the doctrine as to spouses killing their cheating spouses (usually the husband cheating the wife) is that the spouse has fallen victim to the heat of passion. It's factually quite possible that some fathers can fall into such a passion when they hear of a daughter's misconduct that they see as staining their family honor.

This having been said, I'm very happy that in our culture this sort of pathology (killing someone, spouse or otherwise, because of the person's infidelity, including, I suspect, because the infidelity is seen as a stain on one's honor) is limited to sexual partners, chiefly husbands and boyfriends. I'm glad that it doesn't extend to the unfaithful person's father, and I'd like to keep it that way.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure that there's some vast gulf between a jealous passion — again, a jealous passion that might be based in part on a man's sense that the wife has dishonored him (by "cheating") — and a father's passion stemming from his sense of family honor. It would make sense for our law to limit the scope of the manslaughter theory to cover the traditionally recognized jealousy (and perhaps to cover only a narrow subset of such cases), and to exclude the father's reaction. But I don't think we can see the outraged father's actions as uniquely barbaric, while the outraged husband's actions are unfortunate and criminal but radically different. Both, unfortunately, reflect a longstanding tradition of vast and heinous overreaction to perceived sexual impropriety, especially by women, a tradition that is present in some ways in our country as well as in Muslim countries.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Killing of Sexual Partners as Mere Manslaughter:
  2. "Honor" Killings, Muslim and Otherwise: