By Margo Lindauer
The unanimous Ronchi decision issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Valentine’s Day of this year rejected the notion, most recently articulated in the Commonwealth v. Schnopps, 383 Mass. 178 (1981), that women could be responsible for their own murders. In Ronchi, the SJC asserted in no uncertain terms that a person can no longer avoid a murder conviction by saying he killed his spouse because she told him she had been unfaithful during their relationship. Commonwealth v. Ronchi, 491 Mass. 284, 295 (2023). The holding overturned previous case law which allowed for a defense wherein an oral assertion of infidelity constituted sufficient provocation to kill. Id.
In May of 2009, Peter Ronchi murdered his then 9-month pregnant girlfriend, Yuliya Galperina and their unborn fetus (a male), after she shared that she had been unfaithful in the relationship and that the child she was carrying was not biologically connected to Ronchi. Ronchi, 491 Mass. at 285. The facts in the case are undisputed—Mr. Ronchi stabbed Ms. Galperina multiple times in their shared apartment in Salem, Massachusetts. Id. The couple had allegedly been arguing for months about parenting and child-rearing prior to the murder. Id. at 288-289. Posthumously, it was confirmed that Mr. Ronchi was in fact the biological father of the fetus. Id. at 286.
The issue before the court was whether the intentionality behind the killings was mitigated by Mr. Ronchi’s rage after hearing about Ms. Galperina’s alleged infidelity. The previous case law derived from old English law of property and crimes of passion. Ronchi, 491 Mass. at 292-293 (citing State v. Shane, 63 Ohio St. 3rd 630, 627, 590 N.E. 2d 272 (1992)). February’s SJC decision asserted the court’s rejection of the patriarchal and misogynistic undertones of ownership of women in cisgender heterosexual intimate relationships. Id. at 295. No longer can heat of the moment passion due to rage and jealousy upon hearing of infidelity be grounds for fatal harm. “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.” Id.
The SJC also rejected Mr. Ronchi’s argument on appeal that he should not have been charged with first degree murder of the unborn fetus because the fetus itself was not stabbed. Ronchi, 491 Mass. at 296. The SJC reasoned that decision left intact two separate first degree murder charges against Peter Ronchi instead of one, asserting that because the unborn fetus was viable at the time of death, a singular first-degree murder conviction did not encompass the totality of the crime committed. Id. at 296, 298. Where the fetus was viable, the basis for personhood in this context supported the second conviction.
The unanimous opinion drew understandable relief from domestic violence advocates across the state. The very notion that jealousy stemming from oral revelations could suffice as a valid defense for murder contradicts our societal goal of freedom from violence and parity in romantic relationships, including partnership in all forms. Massachusetts law as it stood prior to the Ronchi judgment imbued an antiquated understanding of ownership in intimate relationships.
Implications for Massachusetts
While the Court rejected the notion that oral disclosures of infidelity present reasonable grounds to produce an ire so intense that killing an intimate partner would be justified, underlying questions remain about the concept of violence itself and when, or if, violence is ever justified when there is no immediate threat or question of justified self-defense or physical self-preservation.
For Massachusetts specifically, the Ronchi decision codifies an important change. Under no circumstances does jealousy or rage learned from an oral utterance permit a partner to kill a partner. Questions remain. Who constitutes a partner? Is dating or having a child in common the sole requirement? Will the same pre-Ronchi arguments prevail? Does this ruling only apply in cases where a person is killed? What about generalized acts of violence and harm, particularly when the theory of assault or battery requires proof of specific intent? Will future rulings reject the notion of jealousy from oral revelations of infidelity as a mitigating factor? Equally, if not more important, the Court affirmatively only spoke to oral revelations of infidelity as lacking a sufficient basis for homicide. The Court did not take its ruling a step farther, as urged by Justice Elspeth B. Cypher in her concurrence, to reject the very notion of infidelity generally (however learned or observed) as sufficient provocation to kill.
Justice Cypher cited to a 2022 study of maternal mortality which revealed that women are more likely to be killed during pregnancy or early post-partum than to die from the three major causes of maternal deaths—high blood pressure disorders, sepsis, or hemorrhage. The instant case further reflects the efficacy of “lethality assessments.” Yuliya Galperina and her relationship to Ronchi embodied at least two known lethality factors that made her death more likely—pregnancy and having a child not biologically related to Ronchi. Justice Cypher’s elevation of the important reality that women face a higher risk of violence when pregnant is worthy of further attention.
Margo Lindauer is the former Head of Clinical Programs and Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. She is currently on leave from her position to start her own consulting practice and podcast. JustUsPodcast.com investigates social justice issues impacting women at a Big Age.