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  • Writer's pictureJ. Sutton

Crimes of Passion

Updated: May 11, 2021

Criminal Behaviours explores crimes of passion, the drives and motivations behind them.

Crimes of passion are something we hear a lot about in the news, in murder cases, and in films but what is a crime of passion and why do people commit them?

Those that commit crimes of passion have described the event as something that just comes over them, and they loose control, loose focus, "see red" a momentary loss of sanity.

A crime of passion is known as many things; heat of passion; heat of the moment, sudden passion and temporary insanity.

In many cases (not all) the actions of those who have committed the crime are completely out of character for that person. They are committed by and against both genders in a variety of relationship types such as a sibling, partner or friend.

A crime of passion is an instant response to a situation or event without premeditation. Therefore previous knowledge of an event/situation that allows a prolonged or significant period of time for a delayed reaction would not be deemed as a crime of passion. A delay in reaction would allow a person to process and rationalise the situation giving them awareness of their actions and intent thereafter, which is premeditation.

For many years these crimes were specifically linked to romantic or sexual partners, however research over time has shown us that these kinds of crimes can occur outside of romantic relationships such as family members or close friends.

Crimes of passion are legally defined as a type of temporary or momentary psychological & emotional disturbance, meaning it is classed as a form of temporary insanity. Due to this cases of homicide that can be linked without a reasonable doubt to a crime of passion will be reduced to a sentence of manslaughter.

"The Model Penal Code disbands this rigidity by reformulating manslaughter under the idea of “extreme mental or emotional disturbance.”. . . Under this standard, homicides that occur while the killer is under any extreme emotional disturbance can be mitigated to manslaughter as long as the jury finds it “reasonable” from the defendant’s perspective" - D. Barret Broussard (2012)

Although crimes of passion are impulsive crimes that are carried out in the heat of the moment they are not the same as Impulse based crimes nor are they linked to impulsivity offending, and should not be confused as such.

Impulse based crimes are generally committed by people who have displayed these types of behaviours over prolonged amounts of time. They will have habitual patterns of behaviour that can be noticed early on during childhood for instance. These rebellious and spontaneous acts of antisocial or destructive habits can be an indicator of the potential to offend later in life. Some personality disorders such as Conduct disorder are a prime example of this.

"Earlier age of onset of Conduct Disorder symptoms has been shown to be an important predictor of the persistence of poor outcomes into adulthood including participation in criminal activities." - Charles W. Mathias Ph.D.Behav Sci Law. 2008; 26(6): 691–707.

These types of offender in instances of impulsivity will suffer with disorders carrying compulsion and impulse based behaviours, that are are regular occurrence in their daily life with or without the act of crime being committed.

Crimes of passion differ to this because the person carrying out the act will not have similar patterns of behaviour in their past, it will generally be a one off response to the specific situation they are in rather than something linking into their personality.

This is why impulsivity is not the same as a crime of passion, because it is commonly linked with personality disorders and habitual behaviours rather than a sudden emotional disturbance.

Some of the types of disorder impulsivity is linked to are for instance

"attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and conduct disorder (Moeller, Barratt, Dougherty, Schmitz, & Swann, 2001). In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders " (DSM-IV) (APA,2013)

The first case that used the defense of temporary insanity due to a crime of passion was the case of Congressman Daniel Edgar Sickles in 1859 based in the U.S.A.

Sickles was accused of killing his wife’s lover, but later acquitted of all charges under a plea of temporary insanity.

Teresa Sickles had been having an affair with Philip Barton Key since in the spring of 1858. Daniel found out when a letter was slipped into his pocket from an anonymous person, upon learning of his wife's deceit he was overcome with anger and rage. After confronting his wife and getting her to put a confession in writing he went looking for her lover.

Then on February the 27th, 1859 in a jealous rage Daniel Sickles shot Philip Barton Key killing him.

The case became notorious due do the victim being the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States. It was featured in many news articles at the time.

Due to the circumstances it was deemed that Daniel had acted out of sudden overwhelming insanity, the case was dropped and from then on temporary insanity pleas and crimes of passion have been used in courts around the world.

So how do we know who has the potential to commit a crime of passion? well, the answer is we really don't.

We know there are fundamental aspects of these cases such as they occur between people who have personal relationships, who are known to each other well and emotionally connected.

They often happen after perceived deception, insult or trauma, and are quick, sudden and explosive.

The people who commit them generally won't have a previous history of violent behaviour or links to other mental health issues surrounding violent outbursts. But that is not always the case

Below is a brief look into some famous cases of crimes of passion. That demonstrate how different the dynamics of each case can be and the range in severity of their crimes.

Phil Hartman

On May 28, 1998, comedian Phil Hartman was shot and killed by his wife, Brynn, who committed suicide hours after the murder. While highly intoxicated Brynn and Phil got into an argument, he threatened to leave her. Brynn shot him 3 times killing him, Byrnn committed suicide some hours later after the police were alerted to Phils death.

Lisa Nowak

Lisa Nowak was charged in 2007 with attempted kidnapping, burglary, and battery of Colleen Shipman. Upon finding out Colleen had been seeing her love interest Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein she hunted down Colleen and attempted to kidnapp and kill her. She was not successful and was charged with attempted murder among other things however that was dropped after pleading insanity. she was charged with and plead guilty to burglary and misdemeanor battery. Lisa was sentenced to year of probation, community service, and directed her to write Shipman a letter of apology.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was killed on 1st April 1984 by his father Marvin Gaye Sr.

The father son relationship was not a smooth or easy one Marvin Jr seemed to have some resentment towards his father stemming from a violent and abusive upbringing. It was also evident that Marvin Sr internalised a significant amount of jealousy towards his son and the success of his music career, Something that later was suggested as a motive for the killing.

A verbal argument between father and son proved to be deadly as it drastically escalated resulting in Marvin Sr shooting Marvin Jr with a revolver 3 times in the chest killing him. At the time the family were under stress Marvin Jr had moved back home in an attempt to get over a drug addiction, and family relationships were not at their strongest at the time of his murder.



Differentiation of impulsive crimes from crimes of passion -

Impulsivity, Offending, and the Neighborhood: Investigating the Person-Context Nexus -

Behavioral Measures of Impulsivity and the Law -

Principles for Passion Killing: An Evolutionary Solution to Manslaughter Mitigation † D. Barret Broussard -


Melitta Schmideberg, Psychological Factors Underlying Criminal Behavior, 37 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 458 (1946-1947)

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

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