Readers are advised that the following piece discusses details of various criminal trials, including accounts and allegations of domestic violence, homicide, and death. If this brings up anything negative for you and you need immediate support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800 RESPECT.
I am a lover of all things true crime, from podcasts to documentaries, movies to YouTube videos. I’m not sure what we find so interesting about crime. Maybe it simply feels like such a foreign world to so many of us, far beyond our scope of reality. This disconnect is a massive privilege that a lot of us at university, and in Australia, hold. According to one of UoN’s best Criminology lecturers, Dr Xanthé Mallett, the public’s fascination with criminality (particularly violent crimes) is fuelled by an individual’s want to see the extremes to which someone can go with what they can do to another. “[We] feel safe watching … these awful events from the comfort of the lounge or listening from the safety of the car,” Dr Mallett says. In a weird way, we can have a sense of relief that the crime didn’t happen to us.
Crimes of passion are violent offences (usually murder) that are committed in the “spur of the moment, normally resultant from a strong emotion such as love, hate, anger, or revenge.” Statistically, the majority of these crimes are committed by people known to the victim: spouses, parents, family members, and ex-lovers. Canadian author, Howard Engel, suggests that “murder is almost always a crime of passion,” with power, sex, money, love, and jealousy overwhelming an individual and distorting their view of reality. These offences, according to Mallett, are not premeditated and, as the word ‘passion’ suggests, are brought about by strong emotions which overwhelm an individual into acting violently.
In a legal sense, the Defence Provocation in NSW is a partial defence for a murder charge which argues that the offender was acting in response to ‘extreme provocation’. This defence can result in a manslaughter charge, rather than murder. Mallett states that this defence remains under scrutiny. Due to its common use in domestic violence trials, groups in QLD and NSW are pushing for the defence to be abolished altogether. The role of this defence can be seen in the case of Arona Peniamina. Peniamina was found guilty of the murder of his wife, Sandra Peniamina, in 2018. After a High Court appeal in 2020, however, Peniamina was found guilty of manslaughter, using the provocation defence. It was argued that Ms Peniamina’s death was the result of an escalating argument the pair had that led Mr Peniamina to stab her repeatedly before hitting her in the head with a piece of concrete. His emotions overcame him and drove him to commit such acts, it was alleged (which is so wild).
Crimes of passion are seen in hundreds of movies, books, tv shows, poems, and artworks, where a seemingly ‘normal’ individual shifts from loving to murderous. One crime of passion case I find super interesting involves NASA astronauts, nappies, and a whooole lot of jealousy. Disclaimer: even though there is no actual murder in this case (spoiler!), the themes and motivations behind the offences evidently make it a crime of passion.
Lisa Nowak, born 1963, was an American aeronautical engineer, US Navy captain, and NASA astronaut – I guess you could say she is pretty smart. In 2004, she began a two-year affair with fellow Navy commander and NASA space shuttle program trainee William Oefelein – despite her nineteen-year marriage and three children. Nowak and Oefelein’s relationship was described as more than a work relationship, but less than a romantic one (OUCH!). However, Nowak did not see it this way: she was in love with Oefelein. But the feelings were not reciprocated and, in 2016, Oelefein quickly broke it off and began seeing Colleen Shipman. And yes, you guessed it, she too was a NASA employee. The formation of this relationship infuriated Nowak; she knew she deserved Oefelein, not Shipman (even though she had never met her). Nowak’s love and desire for Oelefein, and jealousy and hatred for Shipman, distorted her view. She was overcome with these emotions and knew only one way to get what she wanted… murder.
So, she did what many of us would do – bought a black wig, trench coat, sunnies, latex gloves, pepper spray, garbage bags, a knife, BB gun, and a steel mallet (talk about overkill). She drove 1488kms, taking approximately 14 hours, to confront Shipman and claim what was rightfully hers: Oelefein. (This journey is roughly the same length as travelling from Newcastle to Sydney 12 and a half times!). She wanted to get it all over and done with as quickly as she could, so she wore nappies (!!) to prevent her from having to take pit stops. At this point, you almost have to applaud Nowak for her level of commitment. Her inability to rationalise and understand that this behaviour is wild is evident of her emotions clouding her judgement and smarts. When she arrived at Orlando International Airport where Shipman was waiting in her car, Nowak suited up in her wig, coat, sunnies, and gloves, ready to confront her victim.
Nowak began banging on the window of Shipman’s car door until it cracked (okay, muscles), so she could spray Shipman with pepper spray. In hindsight, Nowak probably should have waited until Shipman was out of her car. Shipman simply drove away (lol) and called the police, leaving Nowak with her ‘pants down’ so to speak. Nowak was arrested and initially charged with attempted murder and kidnapping of Shipman. In the trial, Shipman highlighted the lengths Nowak was willing to go to get what she wanted: “[Nowak] was going to kill me. It was in her eyes: a blood-chilling expression of limitless rage and glee,” stated Shipman. Nowak was offered a plea deal which left her with one year’s worth of probation, community service, and counselling.
This case inspired many books and films, such as Lucy in the Sky, and is a captivating illustrator of crimes of passion – how someone so intelligent can be compelled to commit criminal acts by strong emotions. It highlights that seemingly ordinary people, like you and I, with the right motivations, might have the capacity to commit crimes of passion too.
For more information about Lisa Nowak case, check out the link below:
I am a lover of all things music, creative and crime! I’m a Criminology and Psychology student who loves to analyses the world and share how much music can change the world. I strive to educate individuals about the crime, discrimination and injustices the world is facing in a palatable and interesting way.