Father urges change in law on heat-of-passion slayings Son-in-law killed wife

maximum term is 10 years

March 07, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Should a man who kills his wife be eligible for a lesser sentence because he thought she cheated on him?

It happened in Baltimore County in January. Yesterday, the victim's father went to Annapolis to try to prevent it from happening again.

In emotional testimony before a House committee, Carl Bender urged legislators to change a law that allows his daughter's killer to receive a sentence of no more than 10 years because he thought she was having an affair.

"I don't understand the laws; I'm just a regular person," said Mr. Bender, a maintenance mechanic from White Marsh. "We need to change something. I beg you, please do something for Kimberly."

Mr. Bender's daughter, Kimberly Nalls, was shot to death by her husband, Brian, in August in their Rosedale area home as she was planning to leave him. Brian Nalls testified that she told him she had slept with another man the night before, and he went into a rage.

No other testimony was offered about the alleged adultery. But under Maryland law, a jury can reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter if the killer believed his or her spouse had been unfaithful.

Despite Mr. Bender's plea, some members of the House Judiciary Committee expressed caution about changing the law.

Invoking Shakespeare's "Othello," in which the title character kills his wife in a fit of jealousy, Del. Michael W. Burns said that such heat-of-passion slayings stretch far back in human history. And he questioned whether they should be punished as severely as premeditated homicide.

"I just wonder whether you can hold people to the standard of murder for this behavior," said Mr. Burns, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "Can you hold people responsible for this in the split second where their worst nightmare comes true?"

Because of that concern and others, the bill as proposed is not expected to pass the General Assembly this year. Last session, the Judiciary Committee killed an identical bill by a vote of 14 to 6. That bill was inspired by another highly publicized case in which a Baltimore County truck driver was sentenced to 18 months of work release for killing his wife several hours after finding her in bed with another man.

The sponsor of both measures, Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat, said that at a minimum she would like to change the law so that simply the suspicion of adultery could not be used to reduce a murder charge. "This is the Dark Ages," she said, referring to current law.

Yesterday's hearing appeared at times to pit women against men, lay people against lawyers. The three delegates who testified in favor of the bill were women. Many of the questions came from male delegates who are attorneys.

The committee room fell silent when Mr. Bender began testifying with some bewilderment as to his former son-in-law's manslaughter conviction. As he described his frustration with the court system, committee members silently passed around a framed photo of Kimberly Nalls and her daughter Alicia, 7.

"I'm going to beg you, at least give me some kind of relief here," Mr. Bender said.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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