There is no such thing as a ‘crime of passion’

There have been no fewer than 31 cases of femicide since 1978; and while they obviously vary in the details, most seem to conform to a depressingly familiar pattern

To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I find more disturbing right now: the fact that a young woman died as a result of being stabbed multiple times in the head and neck this week… or that someone had to come out and explain that this sort of thing is actually illegal in Malta; i.e., that contrary to what seems to be a widespread misconception here, men do not possess the right to murder their partners, under any circumstance whatsoever... no matter how much ‘passion’ might be involved in the crime.

I mean, honestly: was this something we really needed to have spelt out to us? Well… perhaps the answer is ‘yes, we did’. For such was the barrage of online absurdity in the wake of this umpteenth femicide, that Women’s Rights activist Lara Dimitrejivic was eventually forced to vent her (entirely understandable) exasperation on Facebook:

“I cannot take any more gibberish from those that try to exculpate murderers. There was no passion in any of this. And shame on you for saying so. Women are victims of violence from men, men that continue to feel superior, entitled, privileged…”

In other words, she was forced to explain that the much-misunderstood term ‘crime of passion’ does not actually translate into a blanket licence for men to simply murder women at will. (In fact, it doesn’t even exist at all.)

Meanwhile, another reason we may need reminding of this fact is… well, just look how frequently this sort of crime gets committed here.

As has been widely reported this week, there have been no fewer than 31 cases of femicide since 1978; and while they obviously vary in the details, most seem to conform to a depressingly familiar pattern.

In the majority of cases, the circumstances triggering the homicide can be traced to intense manifestation of jealousy on the part of the aggressor… suggesting the underlying perception that women – by virtue of being in a relationship with men - are somehow regarded as ‘private possessions’, to be kept (or disposed of) as their male ‘owners’ see fit.

It is admittedly a generalisation; but one that certainly seems borne out by the specific details of individual cases. In 26 out of the last 30 cases, the victims were murdered by their (actual or estranged) partners; many while in the process of – or soon after – ending the relationship.

Even more worryingly, however, our past judicial history also suggests that it is not just the murderers themselves who succumb to the idea that such primal, brutal impulses may occasionally justify violence. There was a time – until not so long ago – when the law-courts also considered ‘crime of passion’ to be some form of extenuating circumstance in a murder case; and the law itself even used to specify ‘adultery’ as a form of excuse to condone violence by men against women (but not, significantly, the other way round).

I am not entirely sure when these provisos were finally removed from the Criminal Code – though I think it must have been somewhere around the late 1990s, as I distinctly remember the issue being raised in the newspapers back then.

But one thing’s for sure: they’re not there now. The archaic (originally French) legislation concerning ‘crime passionel’ – as applied to domestic violence - has long been consigned to the dustbin of legal history.

What exists instead is Chapter 227 (c) of the Criminal Code, which states that:  “Wilful homicide shall be excusable […] where it is committed by any person acting under the first transport of a sudden passion or mental excitement in consequence of which he is, in the act of committing the crime, incapable of reflecting […] whenever the homicide be in fact attributable to heat of blood and not to a deliberate intention to kill or to cause a serious injury to the person, and the cause be such as would, in persons of ordinary temperament, commonly produce the effect of rendering them incapable of reflecting on the consequences of the crime.”

It is, of course, far too early to know if this will be the line of defence pursued in the case of Chantel Chetcuti’s murder… or, for that matter, whether the argument can even be applied to this particular case, on the basis of the details that have been reported so far.

But that is now up to the courts to decide. Either way, the legal proviso itself – stripped of any applicability to any particular case - does not add up to any form of legal ‘justification’ for the crime of murder. For starters, it is a generic mode of defence for all cases of homicide induced by intense emotion - not just those attributable to jealousy or possessiveness.

As such, it is easy to see why such a proviso would be considered necessary in a country’s Criminal Code. There are several cases where homicide may come about as the unintentional by-product of another act or intention. The most obvious example would be that of a punch thrown in a fit of anger, which results in the death of the recipient… possibly as a result of the ensuing fall.

In such cases, it is clear that – while the aggressor did indeed act with criminal intent – the intention was not specifically to kill the victim.

But as already indicated, it is debatable whether this proviso would be applicable to Chantel Chetcuti’s murder… or indeed to any of the other 30+ reported cases of femicide in recent history.

Even in cases where it is applicable, however, Article 227(c) is still not enough to overthrow the actual murder charge in court. The most it can achieve is a possible reduction of sentence to anywhere between five and 20 years (instead of life, which is otherwise the maximum sentence for wilful homicide).

And as far as I can see, this is the only legal provision that can be interpreted to fit the description of ‘crime of passion’… which, incidentally, is not even a term featured anywhere in the law itself.

Clearly, then, there is no such thing as a ‘crime of passion’, as a legal principle in its own right. There are crimes committed as the result of inflamed passions, no doubt; but at no point does the law contemplate ‘passion’ as any form of pretext to exculpate, or in any way condone, the crime of wilful homicide.

That, at any rate, is how the matter stands in the eyes of the law (to the best of my understanding, anyway). What we witnessed this week, however, suggests that the matter stands somewhat differently in the court of public opinion.

Clearly, there is a level at which many people out there believe that the long-defunct, 19th century ‘crime passionel’ principle is still fully active in Maltese law…. in other words, that it is still perfectly possible to get away with murdering your wife or partner on the grounds of infidelity (or, to cite the classic textbook definition, after catching her ‘in flagrante delicto’.)

Well, what can I say? No wonder so many women get murdered by their male partners in Malta. No wonder femicide has always proved to be too deeply entrenched an impulse to ever eradicate… despite the depressing regularity with which such crimes occur.

For while the law might have been upgraded since the 19th century, the mentality that it once reflected – i.e., that a man is justified in regarding ‘his woman’ as his private property, even to the extent of killing her – is clearly still very much alive… and not only ‘kicking’, but also stabbing, drowning, burning, or otherwise bludgeoning its innocent victims to death.

This leaves us with the uncomfortable prospect that the situation can never really be expected to improve, until public attitudes to such matters are also finally dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

So perhaps we did need that little reminder of the (otherwise glaringly obvious) fact that… yes, ‘women are victims of violence from men’; and yes, this will continue for as long as men keep feeling ‘superior, entitled, privileged,’ etc.

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