Tamar Lewin, "What Penalty for a Killing in Passion?" New York Times Oct. 21, 1994, at A18.
With the Bobbitt case long since over, and the frenzy over the O. J. Simpson case dragging into its fifth month, legal experts on domestic violence, women's advocacy groups and tabloid television shows have fixed their attention on the case of a Maryland man who killed his wife after finding her in bed with another man.
For the tabloids, the case of Kenneth Peacock, 36 -- who pleaded guilty to killing his wife, Sandra, and was sentenced on Monday to 18 months in jail -- is the lurid story of a long-distance trucker who came home at the wrong time.
But for many women's groups and legal experts, it is an example of a troubling double standard in judicial sentencing for offenses committed in the first heat of passion.
Mr. Peacock, caught in an ice storm last February while traveling from Pennsylvania to Florida, got no answer when he called his wife to say he was coming home. When he arrived around midnight, his wife was in bed, naked, with another man.
Mr. Peacock chased the other man away at gunpoint, and at about 4 A.M., after drinking and arguing, shot his wife in the head with a hunting rifle.
He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, but his sentencing on Monday in Baltimore County Circuit Court set off protests. Judge Robert E. Cahill sentenced Mr. Peacock to 18 months in prison, saying that he wished he did not have to send him to prison at all, but knew he must "to make the system honest."
"I seriously wonder how many men married five, four years would have the strength to walk away without inflicting some corporal punishment," said Judge Cahill, referring to the circumstances of the case. He has since declined to discuss the case.
Reports of the sentencing prompted widespread outrage among women's groups
and legal experts on domestic violence, and the Women's Law
Center in Baltimore protested the sentence to the committee on gender equality of the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court. The
committee will investigate the matter.
Neighbors of the Peacocks in Parkton, their rural town in northern Maryland,
were also upset: "I'm not into politics or things like that, but if you
murder someone, it should be life or several years," said Sherry Muller, a neighbor.
Elizabeth Schneider, a Brooklyn Law School professor who is an expert on domestic
violence, said, "It's only one step away from the judge
saying that anyone who walked away without hurting his wife isn't a real man." She added, " The court is saying that this is socially
understandable for a man to do."
David B. Irwin, the lawyer who represented Mr. Peacock, defended the sentence in an interview yesterday.
"This is a man with no record at all," said Mr. Irwin. "I argued
for a suspended sentence. He's got two brothers who are former police officers,
and he shouldn't be in the penitentiary with people his brothers put away. I know from the family that this is not the first time he'd found her
with a man. I don't know if she had a job. They both had alcohol problems."
Mr. Irwin said that Mr. Peacock met his wife in Texas, where her mother lives.
He said the couple married five years ago and moved back to the
Baltimore area, where Mr. Peacock grew up.
Mr. Irwin said his office had been swamped with media calls since the sentencing:
"We've had Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo, the whole nine yards,
but I'm not doing any of it."
Mr. Irwin, who has represented several battered women who killed their husbands,
said none of those women had served more than 18 months
But for some female lawyers, the sentence for Mr. Peacock became a cause when,
a day after the judge acted, another Baltimore judge handed
down a three-year sentence to a women who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for killing her husband after 11 years of abuse.
While Mr. Peacock's sentence was half as long as the prosecution had recommended,
the woman's sentence was three times longer than what
the prosecutors in that case had sought.
Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered
Women in Philadelphia, contrasted Mr. Peacock's sentence with
those imposed on battered women who killed their husbands -- dozens of whom, she said, are sentenced to 15 years or more.
"In the vast majority of cases where women kill their husbands, they
do so because they think he is going to kill them or their children," she
said. "Whatever pain this man felt at seeing his wife with someone else, he wasn't going to die."
Many women's groups say the sentencing in this case and others like it reflect a widespread acceptance of male violence against women.
"What is so troubling about the judge's statement is the way it accepts
a male paradigm that anger and violence are mixed, as though they
can't be separated," said Donna Coker, a law professor at Stanford University. "It very much fits the profile of how abusive men react."
In California, women's groups were up in arms in 1987 over the case of a Chinese-American
man, Dong Lu Chen, who beat his wife to death with
a claw hammer and was given five years' probation, based on the argument that given his cultural background, he had to kill his wife after she
confessed to adultery.
For centuries, the common law has recognized a heat-of-passion defense in
homicide cases, providing that killings may be treated less harshly if
the killer was in a heat of a passion that would leave a reasonable person distraught and unable to exercise appropriate judgment.
In such cases -- and a man who finds his wife in bed with another man is the
textbook example of heat-of-passion cases -- many prosecutors
will allow the defendant to plead guilty to manslaughter, knowing that juries tend to flinch from convicting on murder charges.
States have differing laws on just what qualifies for heat-of-passion status
and, in particular, whether those who do not kill in the instant of
revelation, but wait several hours, as Mr. Peacock did, are acting in the heat of passion. In some states, killing an adulterous wife, discovered in
bed with another man, was considered justifiable homicide as recently as the early 1970's.
"Over the years, the law has developed a whole series of categories of
things that might cause a reasonable person to kill in the heat of
passion," said Stephen Schulhofer, who teaches criminal law at the University of Chicago.
"In some jurisdictions, it can be an assault, or someone telling you
that your spouse has committed adultery, or the confession of adultery by
your spouse. It's mostly cases where men have killed women, and juries tend to think it is reasonable for men to lose it when they hear about
adultery. There is some academic criticism that it's based on a narrow macho conception of protecting your sexual property, but the jury
verdicts aren't changing," he said.