Othello syndrome and a crime of passion

The Othello Syndrome takes its name after the Shakespearean play Othello where Othello kills his beautiful wife Desdemona because he believed that she was unfaithful. In the play Desdemona never cheats on Othello but he thinks that she has and he murders her. The phrase in modern day crime is used in reference to husbands and male partners who kill their wives or partners, often in a fit of rage, because they believe them to be either unfaithful or disloyal.

Does the Othello Syndrome differ from a crime of passion? The answer in short is yes. In a crime of passion the accused can kill either his or her spouse or his or her partner or the person that he or she is with. Both men and women can commit a crime of passion.

The case of R v Cunningham (1981) tells us that the accused can claim that he or she committed a crime of passion in the hope of mitigating the crime or being given a lesser sentence.

The defense, not that it is a recognized defense in the normal sense of the word, is usually raised in cases with regards to spouses and partners where one partner suspects that his or her other half is having an adulterous affair with someone else and kills either the partner or the person who he or she is having an affair with. In order to have any measure of success it has to be spontaneous and the act must lack the element of premeditation or intent.

In R v Cunningham (1981) the accused entered a pub and confronted his victim a man who he believed was having an affair with his fiancée. He pushed the victim down and hit him over the head numerous times with a barstool. The man died and the accused was arrested and convicted for murder.

In R v Davies (1975) the accused was jealous of his wife’s association with a former lover and he became infuriated when he saw him walking with her and in the scuffle that followed he killed his wife’s former lover. The court decided that the act of the accused’s wife walking with her former lover could amount to provocation. We have to keep in mind however that the relationship in R v Davies (1975) was still alive and they were husband and wife – not that it helps by much of course.

However it is sometimes impossible to differentiate between what may or may not have been a crime of passion and murder. In R v Weller (2003) we are once again confronted with the situation where a male partner kills his female partner in anger. The accused and the victim had an argument which prompted the victim to end her 12-month relationship with the accused.

When the victim went over to their flat to collect her belongings, another argument ensued and the accused in anger strangled the victim to death.

The accused was charged and convicted for murder. The accused appealed on the grounds of provocation. During the trial, it became evident that the accused was extremely jealous and possessive and the accused contended that the judge should have directed the jury accordingly. The appeal was quashed.

As for the Othello Syndrome, like the term implies, it is limited to the killing of the wife or the female partner. In R v Vinagre (1979) the accused suspected that his wife was having an affair with a plainclothes policeman though there was no evidence to suggest that they were having an affair and in a fit of jealousy the accused stabbed his wife 34 times thereby killing her.

The accused was charged and the trial judge accepted the plea of diminished responsibility and hence his life imprisonment was reduced to 7 years. Overall however unfounded jealousy is not a defense and it only becomes a defense under diminished responsibility when it creates a clear mental imbalance. It is this category or type of jealousy i.e. that which has caused a mental imbalance and prompts the accused to kill his wife or partner that is classed or categorized as the Othello Syndrome.

Both the Othello Syndrome and a crime of passion are a result of a sudden uncontrollable fit of rage and the explosive anger that results causes the accused to kill. In most instances, the crime scene would not be pretty, and we are looking at multiple stabbings or multiple blows delivered until the accused has unleashed all his pent up rage.

Then again it is also possible, theoretically anyway, to stab someone in a fit of anger and then suddenly realize what has happened. It is difficult to say. Physiatrists put it down to a mental illness while judges don’t and that is simply because to do so or to recognize some of these illnesses would make women more vulnerable.

Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward

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