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Mass. high court rules infidelity can no longer be used as excuse to reduce murder charge

Hearing that a partner cheated is no longer an argument to reduce a murder charge

Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court ruled Feb. 14 that being told a partner cheated is no longer an argument to reduce a murder charge. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

People facing murder charges in Massachusetts can no longer use their partners’ infidelity to mitigate the charges, the Commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled Feb. 14. 

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Frank M. Gaziano, maintained two first degree murder convictions for Peter Ronchi, who was charged with killing his girlfriend and their 9-month-old fetus in 2009 after she falsely told him that the child was not his.

The Commonwealth’s high court specifically ruled that an oral declaration of infidelity, a partner telling their spouse they cheated on them, is insufficient provocation to justify lowering a first degree murder charge to voluntary manslaughter going forward. 


“We conclude that the exception in the Commonwealth to the mere words rule for sudden oral revelations of infidelity has run its course,” Gaziano wrote. “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.”


According to his testimony, Ronchi and his girlfriend, Yuliya Galpeina, often clashed over how to raise their child. And on the evening of May 16, 2009, an argument quickly escalated and Galpeina falsely told her boyfriend that the child she had been carrying for nine months was not his. Ronchi “lost it,” and stabbed his wife 15 times before letting her and the fetus bleed to death.

Ronchi argued his two first-degree murder convictions be reduced to voluntary manslaughter, as they were committed in a “heat of passion.” Heat of passion arguments are used across the country and often by an accused person who claims that their actions were committed in an uncontrollable, passionate state. 

“The idea is that under very specific circumstances, if you kill someone intentionally, but you do so because you were provoked and in a state of hot blood, then that crime…can be reduced to something called voluntary manslaughter,” said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “It’s not really a defense like self-defense or insanity. Legal commentators talk about it as a concession to the frailty of the human condition. That sometimes, we’re triggered and we act out in ways that we ordinarily would not. And therefore, something that ordinarily would be branded as a murder becomes a manslaughter.”


Ronchi used this argument during trial — stating his girlfriend’s infidelity provoked the homicide — but the jury found the level of provocation insufficient. While Ronchi claimed the jury acted improperly during his appeal, the SJC ruled that the jury was correct in their application of the heat of passion factor. And that going forward, oral declarations of infidelity will not apply to the heat of passion arguments — something legal scholars say is long-overdue.

“The traditional rule in ancient England was that if a man caught his wife in the act of sexual intercourse, that killing [either the wife or the lover] was an understandable reaction,” Medwed said. “It was basically this idea that it’s natural for men to react violently to this type of conduct. And so it’s been criticized over the years by scholars and others as very patriarchal, misogynistic, brutal, that dates back to the idea of women as property of their spouses, of their husbands, and that therefore, it’s almost like a property violation…It’s a deeply troubling doctrine, and we should applaud the SJC for recognizing that.”

“[The court’s] decision is really based on the sort of very chauvinistic, misogynistic notion of women being inferior to men, an outdated historic notion of being almost property,” said Chris Dearborn, professor of law at Suffolk University Law School and Director of the Suffolk Defenders Program. “The idea that if a man learns that his female wife is cheating on him, through words only not personal observation, that he deserves some extra protection, that he’s entitled to get upset enough to allow for a defense that can mitigate first degree murder down to voluntary manslaughter of first degree. And the SJC [is] saying, ‘You know what? Those notions are outdated, they’re sexist, they’re misogynistic, and they should no longer apply.’”


In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher specifically emphasized that during pregnancy, U.S. women are more likely to be killed by homicide than hypertensive disorders, hemorrhage, or sepsis — three leading causes of maternal mortality.

“It is important to emphasize that the brutal facts of this case are not an anomaly,” Cypher wrote. “The disconcerting frequency of lethal violence against pregnant women warrants concomitant response from our justice system. This court’s acknowledgment that oral revelations, on their own, cannot induce a reasonable person to kill their pregnant partner is a laudable first step.”


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