A crime of passion (French:crime passionnel), in popular usage, refers to a violent crime, especially homicide, in which the perpetrator commits the act against someone because of sudden strong impulse such as sudden rage rather than as a premeditated crime.
The ‘crime of passion’ defense challenges the mens rea element by suggesting that there was no malice aforethought, and instead the crime was committed in the “heat of passion.” In some jurisdictions, a successful ‘crime of passion’ defense may result in a conviction for manslaughter or second degree murder instead of first degree murder, because a defendant cannot ordinarily be convicted of first degree murder unless the crime was premeditated. A classic example of a crime of passion involves a spouse who, upon finding his or her partner in bed with another, kills the romantic interloper.
In the United States, claims of “crimes of passion” have been traditionally associated with the defenses of temporary insanity or provocation. This defense was first used by U.S. CongressmanDaniel Sickles of New York in 1859 after he had killed his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key. It was used as a defense in murder cases during the 1940s and 1950s. Historically, such defenses were used as complete defenses for various violent crimes, but gradually they became used primarily as a partial defense to a charge of murder; if the court accepts temporary insanity, a murder charge may be reduced to manslaughter.
A love triangle featuring Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri), depicted by Ingres
In some countries, notably France, crime passionnel (or crime of passion) was a valid defense to murder charges. During the 19th century, some such cases resulted in a custodial sentence for the murderer of two years. After the Napoleonic code was updated in the 1970s, paternal authority over the members of the family was ended, thus reducing the occasions for which crime passionnel could be claimed. The Canadian Department of Justice has described crimes of passion as “abrupt, impulsive and unpremeditated acts of violence committed by persons who have come face to face with an incident unacceptable to them and who are rendered incapable of self-control for the duration of the act.”
In recent decades, feminists and women’s rights organizations have worked to change laws and social norms which tolerate crimes of passion against women. UN Women has urged states to review legal defenses of passion and provocation, and other similar laws, to ensure that such laws do not lead to impunity in regard to violence against women, stating that “laws should clearly state that these defenses do not include or apply to crimes of “honour”, adultery, or domestic assault or murder.”
There are differences between crimes of passion (which are generally impulsive and committed by and against both genders) and honor killings, as “while crimes of passion may be seen as somewhat premeditated to a certain extent, honour killings are usually deliberate, well planned and premeditated acts when a person kills a female relative ostensibly to uphold his honour.” However, Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, argued that “crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable”. Some human rights advocates say that the crimes of passion in Latin America are treated leniently.
The Council of Europe Recommendation Rec(2002)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the protection of women against violence states that member states should “preclude adultery as an excuse for violence within the family”.