Bill seeks to repeal law on infidelity Measure would end lighter sentence for killing untrue spouse

March 28, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

For the second year, prosecutors and women's rights activists are struggling to eliminate a Maryland law that lets a spouse-killer get a lighter sentence by claiming the husband or wife was unfaithful.

"You can get 15 years for stealing a $300 television set, but only 10 years for this situation," said Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat whose bill to repeal the law was approved Monday by the House of Delegates.

But her bill -- first introduced last year after the manslaughter conviction of a Rosedale man who suspected his wife of infidelity -- faces an uphill battle in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"There are a lot of very conservative men on the committee who worry that women's rights might have gone too far," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat who favors the bill.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Democrat from Cecil County who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he hadn't looked at the bill and had no comment. A hearing is scheduled in his committee Tuesday.

State law permits the discovery -- or even the suspicion -- of

TC spouse's infidelity to be used as a mitigating factor in a murder trial, allowing for a manslaughter conviction that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

First-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty. Second-degree murder has a maximum of 30 years.

The case that led Pitkin to introduce the bill involved Brian Nalls, who received a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. He testified in Baltimore County Circuit Court that his wife, Kimberly, told him she had slept with another man.

"There was not one scintilla of evidence presented at that trial that [proved] that was true," Pitkin said.

Sue Schenning, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County, said the current law dates to old English law when divorce was not an option.

"This just does not make sound public policy in this day and age. Now divorce is prevalent. You cannot allow murder to be an alternative to going to divorce court," Schenning said.

Judge John F. Fader II, the Baltimore County judge who presided over the Nalls trial, said, "This case caused me great concern."

He said that although he is not in favor of repealing an infidelity defense, he would like to eliminate "the mere suspicion [of infidelity], without face-to-face confrontation," as a reason for reducing a murder charge to manslaughter.

But George Lipman, Maryland's chief assistant public defender, said he opposes the bill because "it's a bad idea to go out and start changing basic notions on what is second-degree murder and what is manslaughter."

He said, however, he would favor a narrower bill that eliminates an unproven belief of infidelity as a reason to allow the lesser sentence.

Pitkin, in defending her bill as a way to correct an antiquated law, notes that the current law only applies to couples who are legally married. Those living together cannot use the so-called "hot-blooded" defense when infidelity is discovered or suspected.

"It's a marital license to kill. It no longer reflects modern society. It's antiquated and recognizes the legal right of men to use force. It's the ultimate domestic violence," she said.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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