Ruling Strikes Down Legal Wife-Killing


Before this month’s Supreme Court decision striking down a traditional legal defense in wife-killing cases, scores of Brazilian men were literally getting away with murder.

The “defense of honor” strategy, abolished by a 3-2 vote, was not part of the legal code but was commonly accepted by courts in smaller jurisdictions of Latin America’s biggest and most populous nation.

Jacqueline Pitanguy, former head of the National Council of Women’s Rights, called the decision a historic first step in ending the violence against women that is endemic to Brazil.

“We have made important advances in recent years and this knocks down one more door,” she said.


The court’s ruling came in the case of Joao Lopes, a bricklayer who found his wife with another man in a hotel in the southern town of Apucarana. Lopes admitted he fatally stabbed them both, but an all-male jury voted 9 to 0 to absolve him, accepting his argument that he was defending his honor.

The Supreme Court decided that the defendant had killed for revenge, and ordered a new trial.

“From now on, the defense lawyer who tries to get his client off with the ‘legitimate defense of honor’ will simply be speeding his condemnation,” said Rosemarie Muraro, a feminist author.

Feminists have been demanding the end of the “honor” defense since 1976, when fashion model Angela Diniz was fatally shot by playboy Doca Street, her live-in lover, in the southeastern resort town of Buzios. Street became incensed after Diniz ended their romance and took a female companion.

The case caused an uproar when Street received a two-year prison sentence with immediate parole. Prosecutors obtained a 16-year sentence in a second trial, which came after widespread protests organized by feminist groups.

However, the strategy has continued to be used frequently, mostly in small towns and in the remote north.

In 1987, in the Amazon state capital of Porto Velho, Domingos Sales Lemos covered his girlfriend with alcohol and set her afire after she ended their three-month romance. The woman, Maria Celsa de Conceicao, was burned over most of her body.

Lemos was acquitted after his lawyer argued that men had a “natural right” over women.


Muraro said she examined 1980s court records in rural Sao Paulo state and discovered scores of men had employed the defense to avoid conviction.

“Murder was cheaper than getting a divorce,” she said. “You didn’t have to divide the property.”

Pitanguy said the honor defense stems from deeply rooted Brazilian machismo.

“According to the defense, a man’s ‘honor’ is not based on his personal behavior, but on his objects,” she said. “A woman is seen as property, not a full human being but an extension of her husband.”


She said the court’s ruling was only a step toward the elimination of violence against women in Brazil.

A survey released early this year showed that more than 6,000 violent crimes were committed against women in the major northeastern state capital of Recife between 1987 and 1989. Nearly 400 of those cases involved murders carried out by husbands, boyfriends or lovers.

Feminist groups, which are growing slowly but steadily in Brazil, say they have made major strides by forcing society to confront the issue of male violence.

They have also made tangible gains, such as the construction of shelters for battered women in several major cities and the creation of a small network of special police precincts that operate only for the reporting of crimes against women.


The recent court ruling has given new hope to some past victims.

Conceicao, the burn victim, announced after the decision that she would interrupt plastic surgery treatment for the next six months and fight for a new trial.