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Injustice in Maryland

LEGAL and domestic-violence experts across the country are doing a slow burn over the case of Kenneth Peacock of Baltimore, sentenced Oct. 17 to a mere 18 months for voluntary homicide in the death of his wife, Sandra.

Mr. Peacock, a truck driver who came home unexpectedly and found his wife with another man, had pleaded guilty. What has outraged people was not only the lightness of the sentence Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert Cahill handed down, but his evident reluctance to impose any sentence at all. He did so only because he had to, ``to make the system honest.'' He went on, ``I seriously wonder how many men married five, four years would have the strength to walk away without inflicting some corporal punishment.''

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The Women's Law Center in Baltimore has protested the sentence to the committee on gender equality of Maryland's Court of Appeals. The committee has found the complaint to have merit, and may refer it to the Judicial Disabilities Committee, which has the power to discipline judges.

The larger issue for society to consider is, what sort of excuses do we make for violence? And what symmetry do we accept for husbands' and wives' claims on each other?

Over the years, the law has traditionally recognized adultery as a provocation to murder. The charges in such cases have often been reduced to manslaughter, with the jury often acquitting the defendant outright.

The law evolves, though, and public attitudes change - especially with so many more women in the legal profession, and on the bench. The bench in Baltimore County Circuit Court is almost all male, however, as is the county judicial nominating commission.

``Battered women's syndrome'' is coming to be accepted as a legal defense for women who kill abusive partners. Mr. Peacock's lawyer notes that he has defended such women and none of them had served more than 18 months in prison. That's not how everyone sees that issue, however: Women who have killed their husbands have often drawn sentences of 15 years or more. And generally women who kill their husbands do so only when they fear for their own lives, or their children's. This makes the leniency shown in the Peacock case all the more troubling. As one expert put it, ``Whatever pain this man felt at seeing his wife with someone else, he wasn't going to die.''

Let's hope the Women's Law Center appeal results in something that looks more like justice. At any rate, the public outcry in this case has surely been a consciousness-raising experience for judges across the country. Meanwhile, advice to Judge Cahill: Real men don't shoot women.

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