Does state law contain a hidden license to kill? Manslaughter ruling in slaying prompts a drive for change

February 24, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Did Maryland law give Brian Nalls a license to kill?

That's what Baltimore County prosecutors, the victim's family, women's groups and some lawmakers charge in the wake of Nalls' trial for the shotgun slaying of his wife.

Jurors rejected murder charges last month after the Rosedale man testified that his deadly rage was triggered by a suspicion that Kimberly Dawn Bender Nalls had cheated on him.

Instead, jurors convicted him of manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison -- less than he could have faced for stealing a television or other property worth more than $300.

Now, as Nalls awaits sentencing March 28, the case has prompted a wide-ranging debate that runs from visceral emotion to cool-headed legal analysis. And some state legislators are pushing to change the law with the help of the victim's relatives, who are still reeling from the loss.

"If you . . . admit to doing something like this, I don't see how it's justified to get such a little amount [of time in prison]," says Carl Bender, the victim's father.

find that law to be very scary because obviously what you have there is a green light to act on a suspected wrongdoing," said Bonnie Ariano, executive director of the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center in Towson. She also wonders whether the law would be applied equally to both men and women.

Maryland's law lets people like Nalls get away with murder, adds Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor. Adultery, she says, is "two people engaged in a mutual act, which may be immoral, it may be repulsive, it may be wrong, but should it be justification to kill?"

The slaying that would trigger the legal debate occurred last August, when Mrs. Nalls, 25, planned to leave her husband. Mrs. Nalls, a secretary at a pool supply company and the mother of a 7-year-old girl, was confronted by her husband after staying out late the night with girlfriends, and accused of being unfaithful.

"I said, 'Did you sleep with him?' " Nalls, 26, a plumber and construction worker, testified during his Baltimore County Circuit Court trial.

Although there was no other testimony about the alleged adultery, he claimed that she answered: "Yeah . . . I told you we were through."

After hitting her in the face several times, Nalls, a recreational deer hunter, went to the basement, where he kept his hunting supplies. He unlocked the door and took out a 12-gauge shotgun, then climbed the stairs to the kitchen.

"The next thing I knew, I had the gun in my hand and bullets were flying everywhere," he testified.

He shot her in the right side, while their daughter played next door and then confessed to a 911 dispatcher and a neighbor.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II instructed jurors that Nalls' belief that his wife committed adultery was a legally recognized provocation -- even if the alleged adultery never happened. And that suspicion could justify a verdict less severe than murder.

"Spousal adultery requires one spouse to discover the other spouse engaging in sexual intercourse, or at least learn of it or have strong reason to believe that it took place, even if erroneous," according to the Maryland Criminal Pattern Jury Instructions, which the judge read to the six male and six female jurors.

Other states, including Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota and North Carolina, have had laws in which such a deadly rage can reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, generally when the killer catches an adulterous spouse around the time of a sexual act. But in cases in several states, including Alabama and Illinois, the adulterous spouse's talk of the act did not reduce the charge.

Jurors in the Nalls case deliberated 2 1/2 days before returning a verdict of manslaughter. Several jurors, questioned later by the prosecution, said the jury didn't believe that Mrs. Nalls was unfaithful, just that Nalls thought she was.

When the verdict was announced, Mrs. Nalls' family stormed out of the courtroom in disbelief and tears.

"I'm still shocked. I don't even have words," said Rita Gardner, Mrs. Nalls' mother, who cannot understand how jurors acquitted Nalls of premeditated murder, the charge sought by prosecutors.

She now cares for her granddaughter, Alicia, who, she said, will not discuss what happened.

Meanwhile, the verdict has sparked action in Annapolis, where Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat, is trying to change Maryland's law. She has introduced legislation that would remove spousal adultery from the list of provocations that can trigger a deadly rage and lead to the lesser manslaughter charge.

"I think by allowing the courts to mitigate murder down to voluntary manslaughter, the state is basically declaring women as property, to be treated by their partners as they please," Delegate Pitkin said. She said the law is out of step with the 1990s, when divorce and counseling are available options for coping with adultery.

She introduced similar legislation last year in the wake of another highly publicized Baltimore County case -- the sentencing of Parkton trucker Kenneth Lee Peacock. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got 18 months' work release for killing his wife several hours after finding her in bed with another man.

Although last year's bill died in the House Judiciary Committee, Delegate Pitkin is hopeful that she will succeed this session. She has asked Mrs. Nalls' father to testify at a hearing in March, is seeking support from women's groups, and has 18 legislative co-sponsors.

She also has the support of Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning, who wrote a letter in January saying her office would back the bill by testifying about the Nalls case.

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