Professor Witmer-Rich has accepted an offer from the American Criminal Law Review to publish an article entitled, “The Heat of Passion and Blameworthy Reasons to be Angry.” The American Criminal Law Review, published by the Georgetown University Law School, is the country’s leading criminal law journal.
The article resolves a long-standing conceptual puzzle in voluntary manslaughter cases, when a defendant kills in the “heat of passion” after being provoked. For decades courts in provocation cases have struggled to determine which features of a particular defendant are properly relevant when assessing the adequacy of provocation.
The article solves this puzzle by identifying a hidden normative component of the heat of passion doctrine: provocation is not adequate if the reason the defendant became extremely angry is due to some blameworthy belief or attribute of the defendant. A belief is blameworthy if it contradicts the fundamental values of the political community.
The blameworthiness principle also explains when the heat of passion defense should be denied to some defendants—such as possessive men who kill independent women, or defendants who claim “gay panic” or “trans panic”—while allowed for other defendants in arguably similar circumstances.
A defendant who pleads provocation asks the community to mitigate a wrongful act of killing from murder to manslaughter, and to do so because another person provoked him into a rage that made it much more difficult to control his violent response. But if the defendant’s reason for becoming angry is blameworthy, he has no rightful claim to mitigation—he is culpably responsible for entering the state of extreme anger that might otherwise reduce his culpability.