Crimes of passion get a lot of attention from the media because covering them means big ratings. Hollywood also loves spinning (and re-spinning) good old-fashioned crime of passion tales because they sell movie tickets and Netflix downloads. It seems like we hear about crimes of passion all the time … but what is a crime of passion in Texas and how often do criminal defense attorneys like me use a heat of passion defense?
In Chapter 19 of the Texas Penal Code, the state of Texas actually refers to crimes of passion as “acts of sudden passion.” Chapter 19 pertains to criminal homicide, so a death needs to have occurred in order for acts of sudden passion to come into play. For example, people often refer to the infamous 1993 John and Lorena Bobbitt case as a crime of passion but it wouldn’t be treated as such in Texas. The crime involved an alleged act of physical mutilation on Lorena’s part (the dismemberment of her husband John), not murder, so it probably would have been handled as an aggravated assault case not a crime of passion in Texas.
How does the state of Texas define crime of passion, AKA, an act of sudden passion?
When it comes to crime of passion law, The Texas Penal code states that, “’Sudden passion’ means passion directly caused by and arising out of provocation by the individual killed or another acting with the person killed which passion arises at the time of the offense and is not solely the result of former provocation.”
For example, say Bob comes home early from a hard day at work and finds his wife Shirley in bed with their neighbor Ralph. Bob, who had no idea that Shirley and Ralph were having an affair, grabs his gun and kills them both. Bob could claim he was so shocked, overwhelmed, and traumatized by finding the two sleeping together he lost his mind and pulled the trigger in an act of sudden passion.
It’s important to note that Bob couldn’t use a murder of passion defense to avoid being convicted of a homicide in Texas. He would have to admit to killing Shirley and Ralph first, then face the consequences following his conviction.
Bob’s claim that the homicide resulted as an act of sudden passion is something that would come up during the penalty phase of a trial. If Bob’s attorney can meet Texas’ heat of passion law requirements and convince the court that Bob shot Shirley and Ralph in an act of sudden passion, Bob could face much less time behind bars than if he were convicted of premeditated capital murder.
Acts of sudden passion are considered crime passion second degree felonies in Texas
In Texas, premeditated murder is considered a felony of the first degree. If the defense attorney can prove the defendant “caused the death under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause,” the court would deem the crime a felony of the second degree.
That’s a big deal because people convicted of first degree felonies in Texas face fines of up to $10,000 and up to 99 years in prison. Defendants convicted of capital murder (premediated murders committed under special circumstances described in Section 19.03 of the Texas Penal Code) could also face execution.
Like homicides that occur due to an act of sudden passion, manslaughter crimes are considered felonies of the second degree in Texas. Manslaughter is defined in the Texas Penal Code as: “A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.” Consequently, penalties for crimes of passion provocation manslaughter are similar.
Persons convicted of second-degree felony murder and manslaughter face lesser penalties than first-degree felony murder because the homicides were not pre-meditated. The maximum penalty for second-degree felonies in Texas is 2 to 20 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Examples of crimes that would NOT be considered a crime of passion in Texas
One famous murder often referred to as a crime of passion was the 1998 murder of former Saturday Night Live cast member and comedian Phil Hartman. Hartman’s inebriated wife Brynn shot him to death then took her own life after a heated argument about him threatening to leave her due to her repeated drug use. Had she survived, and the crime occurred in Texas instead of California, her intoxication may have complicated matters. Alcohol and drug use is never an excuse to commit murder and may have torpedoed any chance for Brynn to claim she committed the homicide during an act of sudden passion, had she not died by suicide.
Another salacious crime referred to as a crime of passion was the 1992 attempted murder of Mary Jo Buttafuoco by her husband Joey’s teenage mistress Amy Fisher. Amy, who earned the nickname Long Island Lolita following the crime, had a friend drive her to Mary Jo’s house, where she told Mary Jo that Joey was sleeping with Amy’s younger sister. When Mary Jo didn’t take her seriously, Amy shot Mary Jo twice in the face. Fortunately, Mary Jo survived, and Amy spent 7 years in prison for attempted murder. Had the crime occurred in Texas, there likely would have been a little too much premeditation for Fisher to claim her act was one of sudden passion. Besides, Mary Jo survived, and the act of sudden passion claim only comes up in the penalty phase of a murder trial where someone actually died.
A crime of passion defense isn’t the answer, an experienced criminal attorney IS
As you may have noticed, the “true crime” examples listed above (the Bobbitts, Phil Hartman, and Amy Fisher cases) are all pretty famous but they also occurred some time ago. The reality is: Crimes of passion are extremely rare (or the work of Hollywood screenwriters). Homicides deemed as acts of sudden passion in Texas are even more rare.
If you’re facing murder charges, you’re better off getting real and hiring a competent criminal defense attorney to defend you. At the Law Office of Randel Cross, we believe it’s the job of the Dallas criminal defense attorney to prove you did not commit murder or that the homicide occurred accidentally or in an act of self-defense. Should you be one of the rare people who committed murder during an act of sudden passion, we’ve got you covered there, too.