Massachusetts’ highest state court handed down a ruling in time for Valentine’s Day with profound consequences for the law of passion, adultery, and murder.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held on Feb. 13 that suddenly being told that an intimate partner has cheated will no longer reduce a murderer’s crime to manslaughter. The court ruled in Commonwealth v. Peter Ronchi that a man who killed his pregnant girlfriend after she told him she was carrying another man’s child was not entitled to a reduced charge — and that from now on, neither would other defendants who killed after learning about a partner’s cheating.
Peter Ronchi was indicted in 2009 for the brutal killing of his girlfriend Yuliva Galperina — who had been nine months pregnant at the time of her death, due to give birth just days after Ronchi stabbed her to death.
At trial, details about the couple’s relationship were revealed. Ronchi and Galperina had gone through a pregnancy scare during a time they had not planned on having children together. After a brief breakup, the couple began dating again, and this time opted to have a child. During Galperina’s pregnancy, Ronchi attended prenatal appointments, planned to co-parent, and even chose a name for the child.
However, the couple often disagreed about parenting choices. Galperina already had children of her own, and Ronchi was dissatisfied with his girlfriend’s parenting choices. Galperina would often leave her young children alone and unattended, she relied on questionable homeopathic remedies instead of standard medical techniques, and she refused to vaccinate her children.
On the evening Ronchi killed Galperina, the couple argued over plans for the baby’s health, including whether to vaccinate the child and how soon relatives would be permitted to visit with the newborn.
When the two reached a stalemate, Ronchi said he was leaving because he was not being permitted to make “any decisions about the baby.”
“I’m leaving you and I’ll send you money,” Ronchi said as he left.
“Don’t even bother sending the money. It’s not your child,” replied Galperina. She had been lying, but Ronchi took her statements to heart.
Ronchi testified at trial that after this exchange, he “lost it” and blacked out, only to wake up with a knife in his hand and “blood everywhere.” He said he changed his bloodstained pants, kissed Galperina, covered her body up with a sheet, and left the apartment.
Ronchi did not dispute that he had killed Galperina; rather, at trial, he argued that the stabbing should be considered manslaughter instead of murder. Ronchi’s argument for the downgrade was that his actions were mitigated by a heat of passion caused by a reasonable provocation.
Multiple experts testified at trial that Ronchi had a fragile mental state exacerbated by trauma, developmental delays, depression, and multiple mental illnesses. Their testimony supported a finding that Galperina’s revelation (though later testing showed Ronchi was indeed the father of her child) was the triggering factor in Ronchi’s actions.
Ronchi’s jury was unconvinced, and convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder: one for Galperina and one for the fetus she had been carrying.
Ronchi appealed on multiple grounds, including one that zeroed in on the legal effect of a person learning suddenly that a partner had been unfaithful. Ronchi argued that the court should vacate his murder conviction, because given the circumstances, no reasonable juror could have found the absence of heat of passion.
The argument raised interpretive questions of Massachusetts law, under which a murder can be reduced to voluntary manslaughter when there are extenuating circumstances such as “sudden passion based on provocation.”
The Bay State’s framework for voluntary manslaughter is a common one, as most jurisdictions allow a similar downgrading of murder when a defendant acts immediately in response to some kind of severe emotional stimulus. Heat-of-passion killings are generally contrasted to premeditated killings: the former typically constituting manslaughter, while the latter usually amounts to murder. However, in places that allow “provocation” to mitigate murder, the provocation needs to be legally adequate to reduce the charge.
In Massachusetts as elsewhere, words alone do not typically constitute sufficient provocation to reduce a murder charge; however, words that “convey inflammatory information to the defendant” can be enough. For this exception to the “words alone are not enough” rule, the “inflammatory information” must be “of the nature to cause a reasonable person to lose his self-control,” and the defendant must have been responding to those words when they committed the criminal act.
Suddenly learning that a spouse or intimate partner has been unfaithful has often been considered a kind of gold standard for the kind of provocation that would be adequate to create the kind of sudden heat of passion necessary for voluntary manslaughter. Indeed, the 1976 California case People v. Berry is taught widely in law schools as an example of verbal revelations of infidelity mitigating murder to manslaughter.
The SJC has now changed those rules, at least in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts SJC is made up entirely of justices appointed by the state’s former Republican Governor, Charlie Baker, in 2016 or later: Chief Justice Kimberly Budd and Justices Frank Gaziano, David Lowy, Elspeth Cypher, Scott Kafker, Dalila Argaez Wendlandt.
Justice Graziano penned the 46-page decision in which he said there was no reason to disturb the jury’s murder verdict. Graziano said the time to discard infidelity revelations as adequate provocation has come to an end:
We conclude that the exception in the Commonwealth to the mere words rule for sudden oral revelations of infidelity has run its course. The exception rests upon a shaky, misogynistic foundation and has no place in our modern jurisprudence. Going forward, we no longer will recognize that an oral discovery of infidelity satisfies the objective element of something that would provoke a reasonable person to kill his or her spouse.
The court left open the possibility that other sudden oral revelations could still be enough to reduce murder to manslaughter. Further, while the judge did not specifically say so, given the irrelevance to Ronchi case, the court might still recognize a visual discovery of infidelity as a basis for mitigating murder charges.
Justice Cypher penned a two-page concurrence to underscore the importance of the court’s ruling.
“I write separately to call attention to the fact that women in the United States are more likely to be killed by homicide during pregnancy or soon after childbirth than to die from the three leading obstetric causes of maternal mortality (hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, or sepsis),” began Cypher.
Cypher also pointed out that the brutal facts of the Ronchi case are “not an anomaly,” and called for our justice system to respond to the “disconcerting frequency of lethal violence against pregnant women.”
The judge urged the court to consider going even a step further than the court’s majority did in Ronchi – and eliminating infidelity as a source of “adequate provocation” even when that infidelity is personally observed.
Legal historian Krista Kesselring examined the roots of infidelity revelations as adequate provocation in a 2016 article. Kesselring explained that there is a “widely shared and dangerous myth” believed by many in the legal community that English law has historically allowed for a husband’s killing of his unfaithful wife to be mitigated from murder to manslaughter. Kesselring says this “just wasn’t so,” as any mitigation of the infidelity-based provocation only applied to the husband’s killing of the other man with whom he discovered his wife.
As attitudes about women’s role in society changed, however, criminal law showed a kind of blame-shifting during the 1800s. Kesselring explained, “What we see in the nineteenth century is a greater sense of the harm done to a cuckolded man, and a shifting of the blame from the male lover to the adulterous wife.” Accordingly, adultery became viewed more about the wife’s having jettisoned her virtue than an “‘invasion’ of a husband’s rights.”
Kesselring and others have long urged just the kind of rethinking of infidelity as a legally-cognizable provocation that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court embraced in the Ronchi ruling. Whether other jurisdictions will soon follow suit remains to be seen.
Law&Crime spoke with former sex crimes prosecutor Dan Schorr Wednesday who said, “In 2023, no serious court should ever entertain the idea that infidelity is in any way a justification or mitigating factor when one person physically harms another.”
“This concept has its roots in the historical, misogynistic idea that if one’s partner is unfaithful, then there may be an unavoidable ‘heat of passion’ which spurs someone to assault or kill,” Schorr continued. “This idea has fortunately been discredited, and it is very good that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court officially acknowledged that in its decision.”
In the Ronchi ruling, the Massachusetts SJC also rejected the defendant’s claim that his conviction for the murder of his girlfriend’s unborn child should be vacated, because he did not directly stab the fetus. Rather, Ronchi argued, the viable fetus died from lack of blood flow after Galperina died.
Ronchi argued in pleadings that whether “At what point, if ever, a fetus attains personhood for the purposes of the law of homicide is too profound, consequential, and controversial a question” for unelected judges to answer.
However, while the SJC did not analyze the limits of fetal-personhood at length, it found that because “the fetus was full term and would have been capable of surviving outside the uterus,” that it met the state-law definition of a “person” for purposes of murder.
“By ending the mother’s life, he destroyed the viable fetus through the cessation of life-sustaining maternal blood flow,” said the justices as they upheld Ronchi’s conviction.
[screengrab via YouTube]
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include additional legal analysis.
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