For a person to take the life of another person is in most, if not all, religions and cultures seen as one of the most serious crimes someone can commit. This holds true historically as well because killing has always been looked on as a serious offence, resulting in diligent investigation and severe punishment.
Homicide is a term used by criminologists—those who study crime and criminals—and sociologists— those who study society and its members—to describe the act of an unlawful killing of another person. The term is used to enable them to discuss and study the whole category of killing as such, without having to take into account that the definition of legal categories such as murder and manslaughter vary with time and place. The term homicide consequently covers the legal categories of murder and manslaughter, whereby murder generally refers to premeditated or intended killings, whereas manslaughter involves less culpability of the offender and thus indicates the killing was not intended or premeditated or was caused in self-defense. In some studies, infanticide (the murder of a newborn child by its mother; see Infanticide entry) is also included in the homicide category, and some researchers argue other forms of unlawful killing, such as corporate manslaughter (when the death of an employee or customer is caused by the company’s neglect, carelessness, or noncompliance with regulations), should be recognized in the category. The label of homicide is consequently used to focus on people who die as the result of unlawful acts of other people, and it is the outcome, the fatal result of death, and not the legal requirements (e.g., premeditation, provocation, and temporary insanity) that classify an act as homicide.
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As an act, homicide is not as prevalent as might commonly be believed. The actual number of homicides is comparatively low, especially when compared with other crimes like assault or property crimes such as theft, shoplifting, and burglary. What is apparent, however, is that homicide is a crime that is firmly rooted in our everyday lives and experiences. Despite the fact that most of us run a very low risk of ever becoming a victim of homicide, or an offender committing homicide, or even of knowing someone who is a homicide victim or offender, this is a crime that is much feared and much debated. One contributing factor to this awareness and fear of homicide is that murder is a regular feature in news reporting and is a major topic of interest in crime fiction. If the murder rate as experienced in crime fiction series, films, and books would have been the real one, there would not be many people left in the end! There are different reasons that homicide features in media to such an extent. One is that homicide, especially when perpetrated by sex murderers, violent pedophiles, serial killers, and the like, has many titillating and interest provoking qualities. Heinous crimes have an ability to awaken our curiosity. Some of these qualities may be emphasized by the finality of the crime—the fact that the victim dies.
One way of enabling comparisons between different countries with different sizes of population and varying numbers of homicide is to give the rate of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. This way, countries and regions can be compared with each other. The rate per 100,000 in Western Europe is on an internationally low level, with a rate of 1.6 in the countries in the European Union. The level in Eastern Europe is considerably higher. In the Baltic countries, the rate is about 10 per 100,000, and in Russia, the rate is 22.1. The United States, with a rate of 5.6 homicides per 100,000, falls between Western and Eastern Europe. Higher still is the homicide rate in South Africa, 55.86. Generally, the homicide rate is higher if a country suffers from unrest or conflict, either internally from civil war or externally by being in conflict with other countries. For example, in Northern Ireland, the homicide rate is 2.65. From other countries, like Zimbabwe, Palestine, and Iraq, it is much more difficult to get reliable figures because of turmoil and instability. Studying homicide rates also shows that the homicide rate is usually higher in big cities than in smaller ones and rural areas.
Even if the prevalence of homicide is quite low, however, when someone is murdered, the consequences reach far more people than the victim and perpetrator. The impact on other people—family, friends of victim and offender, witnesses, sometimes the general public—also needs to be taken into account when discussing homicide. Those close to the victim suffer the trauma of loss and sudden death, whereas the surrounding community may suffer from the general feeling of being unsafe, and fear of crime can increase as a result.
Despite homicide being a relatively rare phenomenon, it is far from a homogeneous one. Homicide can be classified in a range of ways, typically sorted by offender–victim relationship (intimate, family, acquaintance, stranger), number of offenders (gang killings) or number of victims (serial, multiple, and mass murders), and motive or scene of crime (home, public space). Generalizations have been attempted; for example, Katz divided homicide into righteous slaughter and cold-blooded murder. The problem with trying to categorize homicide is that there are always types of homicide that do not fit into general divisions, and there are other situations in which too many different types of homicide fit in one category, diluting the explanatory power of the label.
Usually, categorizations are more detailed and reflect the relationship of the victim and offender. The two most common types of homicide are then domestic and confrontational homicide. Domestic homicide includes spousal homicide, child homicide, parental homicide, and crimes of passion, whereby the death can be the result of years of abuse or related to a more sudden crisis, like a separation or the discovery of infidelity. Confrontational homicide typically denotes male-on-male drunken brawls and honor contests in public places. Other, smaller groups include crime-related homicide (e.g., assassination, armed robbery with fatalities), sexually motivated murder, serial murder, mass murder, and multiple killings.
To connect to what was said previously about the media’s portrayal of homicide, the general trend is that the less frequent the homicide type, the more publicity it gets in media. Even when it comes to the rarity and horror of any homicide, it is still not as interesting to write about domestic violence with deadly outcomes, fatal brawls among drug takers, or the pub brawl among young men that leads to someone’s death, as it is to follow the killings of a Ted Bundy or the Columbine High School shootings.
How can we explain homicide? Wolfgang (1958) pointed out the personalized trait of homicide and claimed it was the most personalized of crimes. This is because in most homicide cases, victim and offender know each other, if not closely, at least by name. This is why the police always carefully check a victim’s friends and family members because the offender is usually found there.
No one has managed to put forward a general theory of homicide, but there is a range of theories that go toward explaining homicide, taking into account childhood, biology, and psychological and sociological factors. The wide range of homicide types means that different kinds of homicide need different kinds of explanations because offender and victim characteristics, motives, crime scenes, and the like all vary depending on homicide type. It might seem obvious that the husband who kills his wife after years of abuse does so for other reasons (frustration, power, and control) than a serial sex murderer (sadistic and perverted sexual drive) or a bank robber prepared to use a gun to get the money he or she wants.
To summarize, homicide is a rare crime, but it is one that we all are very well aware of and frequently fear as well. Despite its rarity, the impact of homicide extends far beyond the victim and offender—it can have an impact on the whole society. Also despite its rarity, homicide is still far from a homogeneous phenomenon. There are a number of different types of homicide and therefore a number of different explanations, usually varying from individual to individual in what has been called the most personalized of all crimes.
- Cassar, E, Ward, T., & Thakker, (2003). A descriptive model of the homicide process. Behaviour Change, 20, 76–93.
- Hepburn, , & Hemenway, D. (2004). Firearm availabilityand homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 417–440.
- Home Office, Great Britain, www.homeoffgov.uk
- Katz, (1988) Seductions of crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil. New York: Basic Books.
- Wolfgang, M. (1958). Patterns in criminal homicide. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylv