"Honor" Killings, Muslim and Otherwise:

A friend of mine passed along this New York Post column about a Pakistani immigrant's strangling his daughter -- in Georgia, outside Atlanta -- because she cheated on her husband and "wanted to end her arranged marriage."

The crime, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on, is awful; and this murderous practice should be condemned more broadly, as should fellow community members and police who turn a blind eye to this sort of behavior, or to similar "honor" violence that falls short of killing.

But at the same time, I'm not sure that I'd cite this as an example of the barbarism or menace of Islam, as I've seen some do. It probably is connected in some measure to Muslim attitudes towards women and towards sexual behavior. But unfortunately very similar practices are common in many cultures, including our own.

To begin with, it remains the law in America (and I suspect many other Western countries) that if a spouse -- who will usually be the husband -- kills the other spouse shortly after discovering the spouse's adultery, the killing may be classified as a manslaughter rather than a murder. Manslaughter is generally treated as a far less severe crime, with far lower penalties.

It's true that the killing has to be done in the "heat of passion," and the ostensible theory is that the crime is in some measure more understandable and more forgivable because of its emotional basis, not that the crime is justified as a matter of honor. Still, my sense is that much of people's sympathy with the killers has to do with the fact that they were dishonored, and not just distressed or angered for reasons unrelated to their sense of their own honor. And in any event, regardless of the rationale, the law does make killing of an errant spouse into something less than murder -- not the same as the killing of a daughter for her dishonoring the family name, but not very far from that, either.

What's more, until the 1970s, this very same state of Georgia sometimes allowed spouses to kill their spouses when necessary to stop or prevent an act of adultery with no criminal consequences at all -- such killings were considered entirely justifiable, and not just mitigated from murder to manslaughter. See Scroggs v. State, 93 S.E.2d 583 (Ga. App. 1956). Even in the 1975 case that rejected this rule, one judge praised the rule and would have retained it. From 1915 to 1925, Texas courts took the same view, though apparently limited to husbands killing their wives. See Cook v. State, 180 S.W. 254 (Tex. Crim. App. 1915).

And until the 1970s, Georgia, Texas, and two other states expressly allowed husbands to kill their wives' lovers. (Some of the states extended this privilege to wives as well, and some didn't have a "heat of passion" requirement.) One of the cases elaborating on such a statute, State v. Greenlee, 269 P. 331 (N.M. 1928), specifically argued that the law "recognizes the ungovernable passion which possesses a man when immediately confronted with his wife's dishonor." Plus it is generally believed that juries have often acquitted the killers in such situations -- including fathers who killed their daughters' lovers, precisely on "honor" grounds -- even independently of the law. To quote another Georgia case (from 1911, quoting an earlier case from 1860), "What American jury has ever convicted a man for slaying the seducer of his wife or daughter?" That has likely changed in considerable measure since 1911, but my guess is that it remained largely true at least until recent decades.

And that's just the legal system's toleration (partial or complete) of such killings. As a matter of practice, many murders and even more assaults in America each year stem from adultery, perceived adultery, or even just a desire for a divorce.

Naturally, none of this remotely justifies the Pakistani father's killing of his daughter (though under some of the broader manslaughter statutes, such as the "extreme emotional disturbance" statutes that track the Model Penal Code, it's possible that his act would be mitigated to manslaughter).

But it does suggest that we shouldn't treat this sort of "honor" killing as somehow especially telling of some unique regressiveness on the part of Muslim or Pakistani culture; unfortunately, this isn't that different from the regressiveness of some American subcultures, and of the law in some parts of America until a few decades ago. And while we should react with outrage at this honor killing, we should likewise react with outrage at the much more typical (for America) killings of non-Muslim wives and girlfriends -- and husbands and boyfriends -- who seek to leave a relationship, or who have even committed adultery.

Related Posts (on one page):

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