Honor Killing

Eugene Volokh invites readers to consider, before citing the practice of ‘honor killings’ as “an example of the barbarism or menace of Islam,” to consider some similar strains in our own culture:

To begin with, it remains the law in America (and I suspect many other Western countries) that if a spouse — who will usually be the husband — kills the other spouse shortly after discovering the spouse’s adultery, the killing may be classified as a manslaughter rather than a murder. Manslaughter is generally treated as a far less severe crime, with far lower penalties.

It’s true that the killing has to be done in the “heat of passion,” and the ostensible theory is that the crime is in some measure more understandable and more forgivable because of its emotional basis, not that the crime is justified as a matter of honor. Still, my sense is that much of people’s sympathy with the killers has to do with the fact that they were dishonored, and not just distressed or angered for reasons unrelated to their sense of their own honor. And in any event, regardless of the rationale, the law does make killing of an errant spouse into something less than murder — not the same as the killing of a daughter for her dishonoring the family name, but not very far from that, either.

What’s more, until the 1970s, this very same state of Georgia sometimes allowed spouses to kill their spouses when necessary to stop or prevent an act of adultery with no criminal consequences at all — such killings were considered entirely justifiable, and not just mitigated from murder to manslaughter. See Scroggs v. State, 93 S.E.2d 583 (Ga. App. 1956). Even in the 1975 case that rejected this rule, one judge praised the rule and would have retained it. From 1915 to 1925, Texas courts took the same view, though apparently limited to husbands killing their wives. See Cook v. State, 180 S.W. 254 (Tex. Crim. App. 1915).

He cites other cases, and other laws, including states where, until the 1970’s, the law allowed, expressly, a husband to kill his wife’s lover.

Read the full post, and mull it over.


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