Heat of Passion

updated 11/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

KEN PEACOCK WAS NOT IN A FOR-giving mood when he returned home one night last February and found his wife, Sandy, in bed with another man. After chasing off the interloper at gunpoint, Peacock, a 36-year-old trucker, spent the next three hours drinking heavily and berating Sandy, 31, while brandishing his hunting rifle. Finally, at about 4 a.m., a shot rang out in the couple's two-bedroom house in Parkton, Md., and Sandy fell dead from a bullet to the head. "There was blood on the couch, the walls and down the hall," says Fran Chenoweth, the Peacocks' landlady, who later surveyed the scene. "It was terrible."

But to Sandy's friends and relatives, what happened next was nearly as shocking. On Oct. 17, after Ken Peacock pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, circuit court Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. sentenced him to the minimum, three years, and then suspended half of it—making it possible for Peacock to serve his time in a local detention center rather than a state penitentiary. Then Cahill recommended that the prisoner be made eligible for work release immediately. "I seriously wonder how many married men," he said in justifying his leniency, "would have the strength to walk away...without inflicting some corporal punishment."

With that, the latest flashpoint in the debate over domestic violence ignited with a fury. Disbelieving critics were outraged at what they viewed as a gross injustice. As they saw it, Cahill, 62, had all but declared open season on wandering wives. "A marriage license is not a license to kill," said Paula Keefer, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Infidelity is not a capital offense."

Married eight years ago, the Peacocks had been headed for trouble from the beginning. Four or five years ago, according to Sandy's mother, Mary Lemon, Ken had caught Sandy cheating on him and had held a pistol to her head for several minutes. In April 1993 the couple moved to Parkton to try to make a fresh start. (Sandy's sons, Joel, 13, and Justin, 12, from two of her three previous marriages, have lived apart from their mother since she was divorced from their respective fathers.)

Like her husband, Sandy was a heavy drinker. Still, her friends describe her as a likable, vivacious sort, who seemed lonely because Ken was on the road so much. "Sandy was a great person," says Ginny Asper, one of her neighbors in Parkton. "Very warm and caring."

On Feb. 8, Sandy was perched at the bar of the local Maryland Line Inn, having a few drinks and chatting with auto mechanic Bruce Morgan, 36, whom she knew slightly. Sometime around 9 p.m., believing her husband was on the road, Sandy invited Morgan back to her house, where they had sex. Four hours later, Ken, his trip canceled because of an ice storm, walked in and found them naked in bed. Grabbing his .30-.30 Marlin hunting rifle, he pointed it directly at Morgan's face. "I could hardly breathe," says Morgan. "He held me there for 10 or 15 seconds, then he started yelling at her. Finally he said to me, 'I think you oughta move while your legs still work.' "

When Morgan cleared out, Ken began a long standoff with Sandy, consuming, by his own admission, about a gallon of wine and a couple of beers over the next several hours. Sandy managed to call her mother in Texas and tell her she would be returning home soon. As Mary Lemon recalls it, Ken got on the line himself and told her, "She's lucky I'm letting her live to leave." At one point, Ken fired the rifle once into a wall behind Sandy. Then, about 4:20 a.m., as Sandy lay on the living-room sofa, Ken was "toying" with the gun, he told police, when it discharged accidentally, killing his wife. Shortly afterward he called 911 to report the shooting.

Under Maryland law a person who catches a spouse flagrante delicto and kills in the "heat of passion" is eligible to plea-bargain down to first-degree manslaughter, which carries a sentence of three to eight years for a first offense. In imposing his sentence, Judge Cahill seemed to have been influenced by appeals from Peacock's two brothers, Brian and Bruce—both of whom are police officers—and by the fact that Peacock had no previous record. Cahill even acknowledged that in similar circumstances he might be tempted to act as Peacock did. "I shudder to think what I would do," he said. "I'm not known for having the quietest disposition."

And he certainly has a knack for inflaming others. Critics of the Peacock sentence question how the "heat of passion" principle could be applied in the Cahill case. "Two or three hours of sitting with your wife at rifle point is sufficient time to reflect on whether or not you're going to kill her," says Maryland attorney Judith Wolfer. But Mary Lemon, for one, does not dwell on the justice or injustice of the sentence. "Ken deserves punishment, but he is a victim also of circumstances," she says. "The real villain here is alcohol."

BILL HEWITT
TOM NUGENT in Parkton and BOB STEWART in Mount Pleasant, Texas

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