Murder, not manslaughter Spousal killing: Committee vote today could help protect women in Maryland.

March 19, 1996

TRACE THE history of attitudes toward adultery and you find a stark contrast. For men, the indiscretion is, well, an indiscretion to be tolerated by an understanding wife. For women, the crime and the punishment are vastly different.

Consider this, from philosopher Marcus Cato, 2,200 years ago: "If you should take your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial; but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it."

Or this, from a 13th century Spanish law: "If a woman and her adulterer are killed by her husband or fiance, he shall pay no fine for the homicide, nor be sentenced to death."

As dire as those directives may sound, they at least seem to presume the adultery actually happened. Twentieth century women aren't always allowed the benefit of doubt.

A 1990 Iraqi law says: "A man may with impunity kill his wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece or cousin on his father's side if he believes her to be guilty of adultery."

And in Maryland yes, Maryland it is still possible to use the belief a spouse has committed adultery as a legally recognized provocation for murder, and a reason to reduce the charges to manslaughter. As a result, in Baltimore County courts earlier this year, an obsessively jealous husband successfully argued that he should be tried for charges less serious than murder simply on his belief that his wife may have committed adultery.

She didn't, but she died anyway.

In 1996, when there is abundant evidence that society pays a heavy toll for the effects of domestic violence, that kind of legal argument should be run out of court, not enshrined in legal precedent. This week the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on a law that would close this loophole a loophole that, as one delegate remarked, provides a perfect way to bump off your spouse. Just accuse her of having an affair and "blow her away with impunity."

Presumably, in Maryland in 1996, the House Judiciary Committee can agree that murder is murder.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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