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Roughly 1 in 15,000 people is murdered in the United States each year (Stolinsky and Stolinsky 2000). Computed over a seventy-five year life span, this equates to a 1 in 200 chance of being murdered at some point in an Americans lifetime (Ghiglieri 1999). Homicide rates vary predictably from culture to culture (Wilson and Daly 1997). In the United States the rates of killing are much higher than in many industrialized nations, exceeding those in Canada, many western European nations, and Japan. In many other countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, and South Africa, homicide rates exceed those in the United States by as much as a factor of ten (United Nations 1998). Among those nations that currently exhibit low homicide rates, murder rates were much higher in the recent past, suggesting that the relative absence of homicide is a fairly new societal invention (Ruff 2001; Dower and George 1995). All of these within-culture rates of homicide do not include casualties of warfare or genocide.

The homicide rates in industrialized nations are much lower than in many non-industrialized cultures. Homicides account for roughly one in ten deaths of adult men among the Huli of Papua New Guinea; one in four deaths among the Mae Enga also of Papua New Guinea; and one in three deaths among the Dugum Dani of the Highlands of West New Guinea and the Yanomamo of central Brazil (Chagnon 1988). In a 1993 study Douglas T. Kenrick and Virgil Sheets found that homicidal fantasies among people in the general population are even more frequent than actual killings.

Despite the fact that tens of thousands of murders are committed worldwide each year, the psychology of homicide is not well understood. For our understanding of homicide to be complete, we must explain, for example: (1) why men are vastly overrepresented among murderers (87 percent); (2) why men are also overrepresented among murder victims (75 percent); (3) why women commit some kinds of homicide more than men (e.g., infanticide of own children); (4) why people kill in qualitatively distinct conditions, leading to predictable motives for murder; and (5) why people experience murder fantasies in circumstances that turn out to correspond closely to the contexts in which people actually commit murder.

The majority of theories that have been used to explain homicide were not designed specifically for that purpose. They are general theories of behavior regarding all crimes, or all violent crimes. For this entry these explanations will be considered as they apply to murder specifically. Unfortunately space limitations prevent an exploration of all relevant theories of murder.


Different theories of homicide need not be competing. They often address different levels of explanation and are often complementary, capable of contributing unique insight to the explanation of why a person commits murder.

According to 1973 and 1977 studies by Albert Bandura cultural and social theories of homicide rely on fundamental principles of learning theory. These theories propose that learning from the social environment is responsible for differences in homicide rates between groups, including differences in mens and womens propensities to kill. The specific environmental source identified as the causal force behind murder differs from theory to theory (Cullen and Agnew 2006; Walsh and Ellis 2006). For example some theorists suggest disorganized communities lead to crime (Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Sampson 1993; Shaw and McKay 1969); others argue that crime is learned through differential association with deviant peers (Akers 1973; Sutherland and Cressey 1978; Sykes and Matza 1957); while others argue that the gap between desires for a better lifestyle and lack of legitimate means to fulfill them creates strain that fuels crime (Cohen 1965; Cloward and Ohlin 1960; Merton 1938; Messner and Rosenfeld 1994). Each of these theories argues that murder is the product of learning by normal people. Other theories propose that homicide is the result of psychological dysfunction.


Pathology theories of murder propose that people commit murder when their thinking is abnormal. The causes of cognitive malfunctions vary, as do the forms of abnormal cognition they produce. For example suboptimal arousal theory is based on the observation that some people have a preference for intense environmental stimulation. Those who feel most starved for arousal are presumed to be more likely to engage in highly arousing thrill seeking and risk taking activities (Ellis 1987). Criminal behaviors including murder may be committed more often by those who are suboptimally aroused.

Seizuring theories of crime are based on research into the causes of epilepsy. Not all seizures lead to convulsions. If subconvulsive seizures are located in the limbic system, argued Dan Mungas in his 1983 article An Empirical Analysis of Specific Syndromes of Violent Behavior, they may have significant effects on emotions, sometimes resulting in criminal behavior.

Other pathology explanations, such as the one offered by R. J. Lueger and K. J. Gill in their 1990 study Frontal-Lobe Cognitive Dysfunction in Conduct Disorder Adolescents, have argued that failure of the frontal lobes to function properly may disinhibit violent behavior. Frontal lobe damage is associated with increased impulsivity and lack of planning ability that may contribute to some murders.

Another pathology theory is rooted in the observation that one male out of every 700 to 1,000 is born with an extra Y-chromosome, and one male out of every 500 is born with an extra X-chromosome (Hoffman 1977). Both genetic abnormalities result in males who score lower on standard intelligence tests (Horgan 1993) and show an increased likelihood of criminal behavior, including murder. However these genetic abnormalities are likely to explain only a tiny fraction of the homicides committed, since males with an extra chromosome only constitute 1 to 2 percent of the total prison population (Witkin, Mednick, Schulsinger, et al. 1976).


Explanations of murder have not been limited to individual differences so extreme they are considered disordered. Individual differences in personality also have been proposed to contribute to the likelihood that an individual will commit murder. For example people who score high on measures of antisocial personality, low in conscientiousness, high in neuroticism, and low in intelligence have been shown to be more likely to engage in criminal activities, including murder (Plomin, DeFries, McGuffin, and McClearn 2000; Hodgins 1992; Monahan, Steadman, Silver, et al. 2001).

Individual differences in personality may also lead to the differential activation of cognitive mechanisms that produce homicidal tendencies in other ways. Personality leads people to experience the same environments differently, seek out different environments, and be excluded from a certain subset of social environments (Rowe 1994; 1996). People with personalities that lead them to occupy environments characterized by high levels of interpersonal conflict may be more likely to encounter contexts that predictably lead to murder.

Another group of explanations for murder propose that individual differences may make homicide more adaptive for some people in terms of evolutionary fitness. Cheater theory argues that two alternative reproductive strategies have evolved in human males. One type of male is law abiding and loyal. Male cheaters, conversely, are argued to adopt strategies of criminality, including murder, in contexts of social exchange to obtain resources and short-term mating strategies in mating relationships.

David Rowes alternative adaptation theory points out that criminals typically devote more effort to mating than they do to parenting (Rowe, Vazsonyi, and Figueredo 1997; Rowe, Vazsonyi, and Flannery 1995). Furthermore Rowe argued that criminality is a strategy that can only thrive when there are others to exploit. As the number of criminals in a population increases, the effectiveness of criminal strategies like murder will decrease.

Conditional adaptation theory attempts to integrate adaptive individual difference theories and learning theories. It proposes that everyone has the same genetic potential to exhibit criminal behavior at birth, and early life experiences cause individuals potentials to change. Children who witness poor, unstable relationships between their parents and live in relatively resource-scarce environments are argued to be more likely to adopt short-term, opportunistic mating strategies as adults and riskier strategies for obtaining resources, including theft, violence, and murder (Belsky 1997). While the preceding adaptive individual difference theories suggest that murder may be adaptive for some people, other explanations propose that homicide is not evolutionarily adaptive for anyone.

According to Martin Daly and Margo Wilson in their 1988 publication Homicide, homicide may be considered an over-reactive mistake, the by-product of evolved, functional psychological mechanisms (adaptations) designed for nonlethal outcomes. For example the behavior of a teenage mother who abandons her newborn in a dumpster to die may be explained by the failure of her psychological mechanisms for parenting to engage. Despite their contention that murder is a maladaptive by-product of psychological adaptations, Daly and Wilson did emphasize that an evolutionary account of homicidal behavior is extremely important.

The previous explanations of homicide are able to predict some characteristics of who is likely to become a criminal and identify some broad features of situations that may trigger criminal behavior. However they share many of the same weaknesses, including: (1) no comprehensive explanation of the patterns of homicide; (2) no predictions about when homicide, instead of some other criminal behavior, is likely to occur; (3) no explanation for a large number of the observed patterns of homicide; (4) failure to provide an explanation for why people who are not pursuing a general strategy of criminality would ever commit homicide; (5) an inability to explain why the majority of ordinary people report experiencing homicidal fantasies; and (6) failure to explain the prevalence and patterns of peoples homicidal fantasies.

David M. Buss and Joshua D. Duntley proposed a new theory that humans possess adaptations for murder that addresses these weaknesses. Although some researchers have suggested the possibility of adaptations for homicide (Ghiglieri 1999; Pinker 1997) and others, such as Napoleon A. Chagnon in his 1988 article Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population, have argued that humans may have an instinct to kill, no other theorists have gone into depth in exploring the likely design of adaptations for homicide (see a notable exception dealing with warfare entitled The Evolution of War and Its Cognitive Foundations by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides).

Homicide adaptation theory (HAT) proposes that natural selection could have favored murder to solve some of the ancestrally recurrent problems that lead to conflict with others. Homicide is unique from nonlethal solutions to conflict because a dead competitor cannot inflict costs on or influence the environment of his killer in the future. According to HAT, natural selection has built in psychological processes that lead us to fantasize about murder and, rarely, kill others when we encounter contexts of conflict that were successfully won by homicide in the evolutionary past.

Homicide adaptation theory does not imply that homicide would have evolved to be the preferred strategy for each or any adaptive problem in all situations. In most sets of circumstances the extremely high costs of committing murder would have outweighed its benefits. The theory does propose that homicidal behavior was sometimes the best of available solutions for rare combinations of adaptive problems and circumstances, which provided selection pressure for the evolution of homicide adaptations.

SEE ALSO Bandura, Albert; Crime and Criminology; Culture; Death and Dying; Morbidity and Mortality; Neuroscience; Punishment


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Joshua Duntley

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The unlawful killing of another human being without justification or excuse.

Murder is perhaps the single most serious criminal offense. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the killing, a person who is convicted of murder may be sentenced to many years in prison, a prison sentence with no possibility of parole, or death.

The precise definition of murder varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Under the common law, or law made by courts, murder was the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. The term malice aforethought did not necessarily mean that the killer planned or premeditated on the killing, or that he or she felt malice toward the victim. Generally, malice aforethought referred to a level of intent or reck-lessness that separated murder from other killings and warranted stiffer punishment.

The definition of murder has evolved over several centuries. Under most modern statutes in the United States, murder comes in four varieties: (1) intentional murder; (2) a killing that resulted from the intent to do serious bodily injury; (3) a killing that resulted from a depraved heart or extreme recklessness; and (4) murder committed by an accomplice during the commission of, attempt of, or flight from certain felonies.

Some jurisdictions still use the term malice aforethought to define intentional murder, but many have changed or elaborated on the term in order to describe more clearly a murderous state of mind. California has retained the malice aforethought definition of murder (Cal. Penal Code § 187 [West 1996]). It also maintains a statute that defines the term malice. Under section 188 of the California Penal Code, malice is divided into two types: express and implied. Express malice exists "when there is manifested a deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature." Malice may be implied by a judge or jury "when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart."

In Commonwealth v. LaCava, 783 N.E.2d 812 (Mass. 2003), the defendant, Thomas N. LaCava, was convicted of the deliberate, premeditated murder of his wife. LaCava admitted to the shooting and the killing, but he claimed that due to his diminished mental capacity, he could not form the requisite malice when he committed the killing, so as to be convicted of first degree murder. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that Massachusetts law permits psychiatric evidence to attack the premeditation aspect of murder. However, the judge's instructions to the jury regarding the definition of murder was sufficient to render the error harmless, according to the court.

Many states use the California definition of implied malice to describe an unintentional killing that is charged as murder because the defendant intended to do serious bodily injury, or acted with extreme recklessness. For example, if an aggressor punches a victim in the nose, intending only to injure the victim's face, the aggressor may be charged with murder if the victim dies from the blow. The infliction of serious bodily injury becomes the equivalent of an intent to kill when the victim dies. Although the aggressor in such a case did not have the express desire to kill the victim, he or she would not be charged with assault, but with murder. To understand why, it is helpful to consider the alternative: When a person dies at the hands of an aggressor, it does not sit well with the public conscience to preclude a murder charge simply because the aggressor intended only to do serious bodily injury.

Some murders involving extreme recklessness on the part of the defendant cause extreme public outrage. In People v. Dellinger, 783 P.2d 200 (Cal. 1989), the defendant, Leland Dellinger, was found guilty of the murder of his two-yearold stepdaughter. The primary cause of the child's death was a fractured skull caused by trauma to the head. However, other evidence showed that the child had large quantities of cocaine in her system when she died. Moreover, her mother discovered that the defendant had fed the child wine through a baby bottle. Due to the defendant's "wanton disregard for life," the verdict of murder was proper, according to the California Supreme Court.

A person who unintentionally causes the death of another person also may be charged with murder under the depraved-heart theory. Depraved-heart murder refers to a killing that results from gross negligence. For example, suppose that a man is practicing shooting his gun in his backyard, located in a suburban area. If the man accidentally shoots and kills someone, he can be charged with murder under the depraved-heart theory, if gross negligence is proven.

In Turner v. State, 796 So. 2d 998 (Miss. 2001), the defendant, Jimmy Ray Turner, was convicted of the murder of his wife. The couple had contemplated divorce, but had apparently reconciled. After their reconciliation, they went together to the defendant's parents' house to return a borrowed shotgun. As they walked to the parents' house, the defendant, who testified that he did not think the shotgun was loaded, demonstrated to his wife how he carried the gun with his fingers on the trigger and walked with his arms swinging. His wife stopped suddenly, bumping into the defendant. The shotgun fired, killing the wife. Although the defendant was not charged with premeditated murder, he was indicted and convicted of depraved-heart murder due to his gross negligence in handling the shotgun.

Most states also have a felony murder statute. Under the felony murder doctrine, a person who attempts or commits a specified felony may be held responsible for a death caused by an accomplice in the commission of the felony; an attempt to commit the felony; or flight from the felony or attempted felony. For example, if two persons rob a bank and during the robbery one of them shoots and kills a security guard, the perpetrator who did not pull the trigger nevertheless may be charged with murder.

The felonies that most commonly give rise to a felony murder charge are murder, rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and arson. Many states add to this list. Maine, for example, adds gross sexual assault and escape from lawful custody (Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 17-A, § 202 [West 1996]). Generally, felony murder liability lies only if the death was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the felony, a felony attempt, or flight from the crime. For example, courts have held that death is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of armed robbery.

Most states divide the crime of murder into first and second degrees. In such states, any intentional, unlawful killing done without justification or excuse is considered second-degree murder. The offense usually is punished with a long prison term or a prison term for life without the possibility of parole. Second-degree murder can be upgraded to first-degree murder, a more serious offense than second-degree murder, if the murder was accomplished with an aggravating or special circumstance. An aggravating or special circumstance is something that makes the crime especially heinous or somehow worthy of extra punishment.

California lists some 20 different special circumstances that can boost a murder from second to first degree, including murder carried out for financial gain; murder committed with an explosive; murder committed to avoid or prevent a lawful arrest; murder to perfect or attempt an escape from lawful custody; murder of a law enforcement officer, prosecutor, judge, or elected, appointed, or former government official; murder committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel fashion where the killer lay in wait for, or hid from, the victim; murder where the victim was tortured by the killer; murder where the killer used poison; or murder where the killing occurred during the commission of, aid of, or flight from certain felonies. These felonies include rape, robbery, kidnapping, burglary, arson, train wrecking, sodomy, the performance of a lewd or lascivious act upon a child under age 14, and oral copulation with a child under age 14 (Cal. Penal Code § 190.2 [West 1996]).

If a murder does not qualify by statute for first-degree murder, it is charged as second-degree murder. A second-degree murder may be downgraded to manslaughter if mitigating factors were involved in the killing, such as adequate provocation by the victim, or the absence of intent or recklessness on the part of the defendant.

Maine has simplified the law of murder. In Maine, a person is guilty of murder if he or she intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another human being, engages in conduct that manifests a depraved indifference to the value of human life and causes death, or intentionally or knowingly causes another human being to commit suicide by the use of force, duress, or deception (Me. Stat. tit. 17-A § 201 [1996]). Maine also has a felony murder statute. It does not divide murder into degrees.

Sentencing for murder varies from state to state, and according to degrees in the states that have them. Second-degree murder usually is punished with more than 20 years in prison. A person convicted of second-degree murder in Minnesota, for example, may be sentenced to prison for not more than 40 years. Some states, such as California, allow a sentence up to life in prison for second-degree murder.

In some states that have a first-degree murder charge, the crime is punished with a life term in prison without the possibility of parole. In other states, first-degree murder is punishable by death. A defendant's criminal history may affect sentencing for a murder conviction. The greater the criminal history, the more time the defendant is likely to serve. The criminal history of a murder defendant may even cause a murder charge to be upgraded from second degree to first degree. In California, for example, a murder defendant who has a prior conviction for murder faces an automatic first-degree murder charge.

The strongest defenses to a murder charge are provocation and self-defense. If the defendant acted completely in self-defense, this fact may relieve the defendant of all criminal liability. If it does not relieve the defendant of all liability, self-defense at least may reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter. Provocation rarely results in complete absolution, but it may reduce the defendant's criminal liability. For example, suppose that a family is being tormented by a neighbor for no apparent reason. The neighbor has damaged the family's property, assaulted the children, and killed the family dog. If the father kills the neighbor and is charged with murder, the father may argue that the provocation by the victim was so great that if he is to be found criminally liable at all, he should be found liable for manslaughter, not murder.

Women Murdered on the Job

The workplace can be a dangerous environment, exposing workers to hazards that can cause accidents, disease, and sometimes death. But the workplace also is a place where murders are committed. Statistics indicate that there is a large difference between the number of men and the number of women killed on the job. Fifteen percent of men who die at work are murdered, whereas 35 percent of female workplace deaths are the result of homicides.

It is believed that the high number of female workplace murders is based in part on the kinds of jobs women take in the economy. Many work in retail jobs, clerking at late-night convenience stores where robberies often occur and where security is often lacking. Analysts also believe that male perpetrators select retail stores where they believe that they can easily overpower a female employee.

Other workplace murders of women are committed by former boyfriends and husbands who are upset over a separation. Some psychologists believe that these men associate the woman's job with independence and the breakup of their relationship. Murdering a former wife or lover is a way for a man to reassert his dominance.

Finally, some murders of women appear to be committed out of resentment over the loss of a job at the workplace and the perception that women are to blame for the job loss. Roughly five percent of all the murders committed in the workplace, male and female, are committed by former or current employees.

A defendant's subjective belief that he or she was under attack by a victim at the time of a killing may be a basis for a claim of self-defense. In Henderson v. Texas, 906 S.W.2d 589 (Tex. App. 1995), the defendant, Sherri Henderson, was convicted of the murder of a victim whom she shot outside of a nightclub. The victim had engaged in a fight with the defendant's sister inside the club, and the fight later moved out-side. The defendant carried a gun that she had purchased a few days before, apparently for protection from her estranged husband. The facts in the case were in dispute, but the defendant found her sister bleeding from the head when she went to the parking lot. She claimed that she saw someone reach for a weapon, and she fired into a crowd, hitting and fatally wounding the woman who had fought her sister. The jury apparently believed the prosecution's claim that the defendant had intentionally shot at the victim after seeing her sister on the ground, and Henderson was convicted of murder. However, the Texas appellate court reversed the trial court's conviction, holding that evidence of the defendant's subjective beliefs regarding her attacker's identity and evidence of prior attacks on the defendant by her husband were relevant to her claim for self-defense.

Insanity is another defense to a murder charge. If a defendant was suffering from such a defect of the mind that he or she did not know what he or she was doing, or the defendent did not know that what he or she was doing was wrong, the defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity. In some states, the defendant may be found guilty but mentally ill. In either case, the result is the same: The defendant is confined to a mental institution instead of a prison.

The insanity defense has many critics, and it especially comes under fire when a defendant commits an atrocious killing. In 2001, the nation was shocked by the story about Andrea Yates, who drowned each of her five young children in a bathtub. The children's ages ranged from six months to seven years old at the time of the killings. Yates was estranged from her husband and contacted him shortly after the killings. She subsequently confessed to the crime but claimed the defense of insanity. Her counsel argued that because she suffered from schizophrenia, which had first surfaced several years earlier, she did not know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the killings. According to testimony, she had considered stabbing her first child shortly after his birth. The insanity defense failed, however, and Yates was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The modern law of murder is relatively static, but minor changes are occasionally proposed or implemented. Some legislatures have debated the idea of striking assisted suicide from murder statutes. Some have considered proposals making doctors liable for murder if they perform a third-trimester abortion. Many have made changes with respect to juveniles. Juveniles accused of murder used to be tried in juvenile courts, but in the 1980s and 1990s, legislatures passed laws to make juvenile murder defendants over the ages of 14 or 15 stand trial as adults. This change is significant because a juvenile defendant convicted in the juvenile justice system might go free upon reaching a certain age, such as 21. A juvenile defendant who is tried in adult court does not have such an opportunity and may be sentenced to prison for many years, or for life without parole. A juvenile may be put to death upon conviction for murder but only if he or she was age 16 or older at the time of the offense (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 108 S. Ct. 2687, 101 L. Ed. 2d 702 [1988]).

Mass Murders and Serial Killings

The public is often fascinated, although also horrified, by stories of mass murders and serial killings. This fascination is evidenced by the popularity of such films as Natural Born Killers and Silence of the Lambs. When a mass murder or serial killing occurs, it often receives considerable media attention. Stories are revisited for years following the incidents, as experts and novices alike try to determine the causes of why these tragedies occur and how they can be prevented. Although statistics show that mass murders and serial killings are more common now than they have been in the past, this type of killings is still rather rare.

Criminologists and other experts distinguish between a serial killer and a mass murderer, although the profiles of these perpetrators are often similar. A serial killer is most often a younger, white male, who targets specific strangers near his work or home. This type of killer is typically a sociopath who kills to satisfy delusional personal needs and desires through killing by physical force. Serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy are household names. A mass murderer is likewise often a young, white male, who acts deliberately and methodically in carrying out his killings. One of the most celebrated mass murderers was Charles Joseph Whitman, who in 1966 climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin and engaged in a 90-minute shooting spree. He shot 44 people, killing 14, before being fatally shot by a police officer. The motivation of either a serial killer or a mass murderer obviously varies by the killer, but experts note that it is often terror, power, revenge, or profit.

The United States and several other countries have been especially horrified by a number of school shootings in the past decade. One of the most horrific of these shootings occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999. Two teenagers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, went on a shooting rampage throughout the school, killing 12 students and injuring more than 20, before finally killing themselves. Since 1996, more than 25 schools in the United States have suffered from school shootings, as have schools in such countries as Canada, Sweden, Scotland, and Germany. Because the perpetrators of these murders are usually teenagers, experts have investigated these shootings closely, in order to identify potential signs that an unbalanced student might consider resorting to violence.

further readings

Fox, James Alan, and Jack Levin. 1998. "Multiple Homicide: Patterns of Serial and Mass Murder." Crime and Justice..

Hobson, Charles L. 1996. "Reforming California's Homicide Law." Pepperdine Law Review 23.

LaFave, Wayne R. 2000. Criminal Law 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.


Capital Punishment; Criminal Law; Death and Dying; Felony-Murder Rule; Homicide; Insanity Defense; Juvenile Law.

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murder The act of murder is unique to humanity. While animals kill outside of their own species for food, and may fight, wound, or very occasionally kill within species for territory, it is only within mankind that one person — out of malice or rage, for gain or revenge — takes another person's life by violent means. Though most religions and cultures have gone out of their way to define murder as unnatural (the very use of the words ‘cold blooded’ denotes our need to see it as less than human), its continued presence within our history might, if we were more honest, suggest the opposite.

As a central element in the drama of human life, murder has always figured powerfully within culture, but it is only in the last hundred years or so that it has itself become a recognizable art form: the murder mystery. The timing is interesting. It is surely not coincidental that at the same time as medical advances were lengthening human life, writers were finding themselves more and more obsessed by stories about shortening it. Or that as science was chipping away at the notion of God, the murder mystery was busy perfecting itself as a form which, by definition, always answered certain key questions about the mysteries of life: why is it this person who dies rather than another? And — the biggest question of all — who did it? Murder, the most violent of human activities, became in some ways the most reassuring of reads.

Increasingly, science has been playing an ever more powerful role in solving murder, both real and fictional. Where once the art of detection was as much about intuition as about the careful consideration of evidence (the archetypes here are Miss Marple versus Sherlock Holmes), scientific and forensic advances are now the name of the game. DNA testing is just one of a whole series of breakthroughs that have made the laboratory as important as the scene of the crime and the corpse as communicative as any witnesses. While the question ‘why?’ may still be the preserve of the traditional detective, the ‘who?’ and the ‘how?’ are now being answered by men and women in white coats, and their fictional equivalents, a whole rash of hero/heroine pathologists, are becoming the new superstars of the genre. Through them the dead speak. Which, in its own way, is a kind of resurrection of the body. Maybe that explains why, while as a society we fret continually about rising levels of violent crime, culturally speaking we can't seem to get enough of a good murder.

By definition, a murder is a homicide (the killing of one human being by another) that is committed intentionally, or with malice aforethought. All legal codes classify it as a crime; where the element of intent exists and there are no extenuating circumstances, the penalty may be death or life imprisonment. It is thus important that doctors and legal investigators — those routinely confronted by cases of sudden and unexplained death — have some way to determine whether they are dealing with murder, suicide (self-murder), or an accident.

The problem of determining the cause of sudden or accidental death is one of the most important functions of forensic medicine, the application of medical knowledge to the service of the law and the administration of justice. It is a subject which draws upon a wide understanding of the medical, surgical, and scientific consequences of violent assault, poisoning, and other criminal offences against the person. In cases where the victim has died and a charge of murder may be brought, the law relies upon a detailed forensic examination of the corpse (and the crime scene) by trained experts. A careful medicolegal autopsy, performed by a forensic pathologist, can accurately reveal the sequence of events leading up to death, while forensic scientists are able to link the suspect to the victim on the strength of evidence from bloodstains, fibres, hairs, weapons, wounds, etc. Every contact between victim and murderer leaves a physical trace.

Forensic examinations were performed in medieval China and Europe, where surgeons noted the distinctions between fatal and non-fatal wounds, and those made before and after death; the depth, direction, and location of cutting wounds helped to distinguish between suicide and murder. The differences between burning, hanging, and submersion inflicted before and after death were known, but the principal symptoms and internal signs of poisoning were easily mistaken for those of disease. Despite the growing corpus of medical knowledge, however, courts relied for centuries on crude methods of establishing the guilt of accused murderers, who were subjected to trial by ordeal, or tortured to extract confessions. Cruentation — the supposed bleeding of the wounds of a corpse in the presence of the murderer — was popularly accepted as a proof of guilt until the nineteenth century.

Today, murder is assumed if a corpse shows injuries that raise suspicion or give obvious evidence of criminal violence, as in deaths from gunshot or stab wounds, burning, and bludgeoning. When an individual is battered to death, there will be a lot of blood at the scene and defensive wounds on the victim's arms. The instrument used will often leave a discernible pattern on the body. Murder by burning — which is rare — causes contraction of the muscles; the presence of soot or carbon monoxide in the lungs indicates that the victim was alive when the fire began. Stab wounds show the type of blade used and its length; extensive superficial wounding usually indicates suicide. Bullet wounds can indicate the distance and position from which a gun was fired, thus determining whether a death was murder or suicide. If a weapon is not found at the scene there is a strong presumption of murder, but sometimes the most severe wounds do not cause instantaneous death; suicides are occasionally able to walk some distance before collapsing.

When signs of mortal wounding are lacking, asphyxiation (resulting from inhalation of noxious fumes or smoke, drowning, hanging, smothering, or strangling) and poisoning are considered. Murder by strangulation is done with the hands or with a ligature (throttling). In both cases bodies exhibit blue lips and tiny haemorrhages on the face and eyes (petechiae). Victims strangled by hand have ‘fingertip’ bruises on the throat, and fractures of the hyoid bone of the voice box, while in throttling deaths the ligature is either present or will have left a distinctive groove on the neck. Self-throttling is possible, but self-strangulation by hand is not. Murder by hanging rarely occurs, but bodies are sometimes suspended after being murdered, to simulate suicidal hanging (which is common); when this is the case there will be other marks of violence on the corpse. Signs of vital reaction around the constriction mark on the neck indicate that the victim was alive when hanged. When neither is present, a medical opinion may be difficult to reach.

Drowning deaths are diagnosed by the presence of froth in the air passages, water in the stomach, and ballooning of the lungs; circumstantial evidence is required to distinguish between murder, suicide, and accident. The presence of microscopic algae (diatoms) in the circulatory system and internal organs can help to locate where the victim died, as they vary from place to place. No diatoms are found in the bodies of individuals murdered and then thrown into water. Smothering deaths leave few traces, but there may be evidence of pressure on the face and bloodstained froth from the nostrils; fibres found in the airways of the victim may prove that a specific soft object was used to prevent breathing. Deaths resulting from inhalation of irrespirable gases are usually suicides or accidents; circumstantial evidence may indicate murder. Lastly, only a small percentage of modern murderers use poison, which can be detected by chemical analysis (forensic toxicology).

If a murder victim remains unidentified, so does the murderer. But it is possible to gain a great deal of information from a dead body, or from parts thereof. When all that remains is a skeleton, its age, sex, height, and race can be determined. Bones will show evidence of physical deformities, right- or left-handedness, and sometimes diseases or other medical conditions. Teeth are nearly impossible to destroy, and are thus an ideal means of identification. When murder is suspected only after burial, it is possible to prove even after a number of years have elapsed. Some details will be lost (for example, putrefaction and time destroy all evidence of death from drowning), but cause of death can usually be determined following exhumation and forensic autopsy. In essence, dead men do tell tales.

Sarah Dunant

Katherine D. Watson

See also autopsy; drowning; poisoning; skeleton; strangulation; suffocation.

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456. Murder (See also Assassination, Infanticide, Patricide.)

  1. Abimelech slew his 70 brothers to become ruler. [O.T.: Judges 9:5]
  2. Barnwell, George noble motives cause him to murder uncle. [Br. Lit.: The London Merchant ; Barnhart, 695]
  3. Beaumont, Jeremiah kills the man who had seduced his wife; he is murdered by an enemy and his wife kills herself. [Am. Lit.: Warren World Enough and Time in Magill II, 1160]
  4. Bluebeard closets away bodies of former wives. [Fr. Fairy Tale: Harvey, 9798]
  5. Bluebeard (Henri Désiré Landru , 18691922) executed for murders of ten women (191518). [Fr. Hist.: EB (1972), XIII, 661
  6. Boston Strangler (Albert De Salvo, 1932) strangled thirteen women between 1962 and 1964. [Am. Hist.: Misc.]
  7. Busiris murders predecessor to gain Egyptian throne. [Gk. Myth: Avery, 231]
  8. Cain jealous, slays Abel. [O.T.: Genesis 4:8]
  9. Cenci, Beatrice with brothers, arranges murder of cruel father. [Br. Lit.: The Cenci ]
  10. Claudius murders brother to gain throne. [Br. Lit.: Hamlet ]
  11. Danaides slew husbands on wedding night. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 74]
  12. Donatello throws Miriams persecutor over cliff to death. [Am. Lit.: The Marble Faun ]
  13. Donegild killed by Alla for abandoning his wife and son at sea. [Br. Lit.: Canterbury Tales, Man of Laws Tale]
  14. Franceschini, Count brutally murders his estranged young wife and her parents. [Br. Poetry: Browning The Ring and the Book ]
  15. Gilligan, Amy Archer poisons 48 elderly people in nursing homes. [Am. Hist.: Elizabeth S. Baxter Newington ; Am. Drama: Kesselring Arsenic and Old Lace ]
  16. Griffiths, Clyde young social climber lets his pregnant mistress drown in a boating accident and is convicted of murder. [Am. Lit.: An American Tragedy in Hart, 30]
  17. Hagen stabs Siegfried in back; kills Gunther. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Götterdämmerung, Westerman, 245]
  18. Hines, Doc kills Joes father; lets mother die in childbirth. [Am. Lit.: Light in August ]
  19. Ibbetson, Peter a confessed murderer, yet a sensitive, romantic man. [Br. Lit.: Peter Ibbetson, Magill I, 736738]
  20. In Cold Blood nonfiction novel about a brutal, senseless murder in Kansas. [Am. Lit.: In Cold Blood ]
  21. Injun Joe stabs town doctor to death. [Am. Lit.: Tom Sawyer ]
  22. Ixion first murderer of a relative in classical mythology. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 142; Rom. Lit.: Aeneid ]
  23. Jack the Ripper killed and disemboweled 9 London prostitutes (18881889). [Br. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 463]
  24. Julian, St. mistakenly kills his parents in their sleep. [Fr. Lit.: Flaubert The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaler]
  25. Kenilworth intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I. [Br. Lit.: Scott Kenilworth in Magill I, 469]
  26. M motion picture about a child-murderer hunted down by organized criminal element. [Ger. Cinema: Halliwell]
  27. Macbeth became king of Scotland through a series of ruthless murders, but was ultimately slain by his enemy, Macduff. [Br. Lit.: Shakespeare Macbeth ]
  28. Medea murdered her two children. [Gk. Lit.: Century Classical, 684685]
  29. Michele murders wifes lover; hides body under cloak. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, The Cloak, Westerman, 362363]
  30. Modo fiend presiding over homicide. [Br. Lit.: King Lear ]
  31. Mordred, Sir illegitimate son and treacherous killer of Arthur. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte dArthur ]
  32. Orestes commits matricide to avenge fathers honor. [Gk. Lit.: Electra ]
  33. Othello believing false evidence of Desdemonas infidelity, he strangles her. [Br. Lit.: Shakespeare Othello ]
  34. Ourang-Outang brutally kills a mother and her daughter. [Am. Lit.: Poe The Murders in the Rue Morgue ]
  35. Porgy murders Crown, who tried to take Bess. [Am. Opera: Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, Westerman, 556]
  36. Raskolnikov plans and carries out the murder of an old woman pawnbroker. [Russ. Lit.: Crime and Punishment ]
  37. Rogêt, Marie girl assaulted and murdered, her corpse thrown into the Seine. Am. Lit.: Poe The Mystery of Marie Rogêt ]
  38. Rudge murders master and gardener. [Br. Lit.: Barnaby Rudge ]
  39. Sikes, Bill hanged for killing of Nancy. [Br. Lit.: Oliver Twist ]
  40. Smith, George Joseph dispatched wives and lovers in bathtubs in 1910s. [Br. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 274]
  41. Spandrell cynic opposed to fascist Everard Webley attacks and kills him, then commits suicide. [Br. Lit.: Huxley Point Counter Point in Magill I, 760]
  42. Sparafucile his killing of Gilda fulfills curse against Rigoletto. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Rigoletto, Westerman, 300]
  43. Thuggee religious devotion to Kali involves human strangulation. [Indian Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1080]
  44. Tyrrel, James at the kings behest, arranges the deaths of two young princes in the Tower. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Richard III]

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murder, criminal homicide, usually distinguished from manslaughter by the element of malice aforethought. The most direct case of malicious intent occurs when the killer is known to have adopted the deliberate intent to commit the homicidal act at some time before it is actually committed. Very often, however, the law presumes the existence of malice aforethought from the circumstances, and it does not necessarily have to be proved directly. The most clear-cut case of this presumption of malice is when the killer inadvertently murders a person other than his intended victim. Here, malice is presumed if the killer intended to inflict serious bodily injury, or if he behaved with such reckless disregard of the safety of others as to betray a "depraved heart." Likewise, a killing incidentally committed in the course of a felony (e.g., robbery or rape) is deemed murder; if the felony was accomplished by more than one person, all are equally guilty of the murder, not only the actual killer. A murder that is incidental to a misdemeanor, however, is treated as manslaughter. Most states prescribe various degrees of murder. Murder in the first degree generally is a calculated act of slaying committed with malice aforethought, often requiring aggravated circumstances such as extreme brutality. It receives the severest penalty, often life imprisonment or capital punishment. Second-degree murder is a homicide committed with malice, but without deliberation or premeditation. A homicide committed without malice (as in negligent motor vehicle operation) or in the "heat of passion" (as in a quarrel which escalates to violence) is generally considered manslaughter. In some states, certain crimes that are defined as murder of a lower degree approximate more closely the definition of manslaughter in common law. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whether malice aforethought was present; consequently the governor of a state (or other chief executive) not infrequently uses his power of commutation of sentence to revoke the death penalty, and in some states the appellate courts automatically review all convictions of murder.

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mur·der / ˈmərdər/ • n. the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another: the stabbing murder of an off-Broadway producer| he was put on trial for attempted murder. ∎ inf. a very difficult or unpleasant task or experience: my first job at the steel mill was murder. ∎ inf. something causing great discomfort to a part of the body: that exercise is murder on the lumbar regions. • v. [tr.] kill (someone) unlawfully and with premeditation: somebody tried to murder Joe. ∎ inf. punish severely or be very angry with: my father will murder me if I'm home late. ∎ inf. conclusively defeat (an opponent) in a game or sport. ∎  spoil by lack of skill or knowledge: the only thing he had murdered was the English language. PHRASES: get away with murder inf. succeed in doing whatever one chooses without being punished or suffering any disadvantage. murder one (or two) inf. first-degree (or second-degree) murder. murder will out murder cannot remain undetected. scream (or yell) bloody murder inf. scream loudly due to pain or fright; make an extravagant and noisy protest: she had tripped and was screaming bloody murder.DERIVATIVES: mur·der·er n. mur·der·ess / ˈmərdərəs/ n. ORIGIN: Old English morthor, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch moord and German Mord, from an Indo-European root shared by Sanskrit mará ‘death’ and Latin mors; reinforced in Middle English by Old French murdre.

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"murder." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Murder, Inc.

Inc. Murder, name given to the band of professional killers who operated (1930–40) throughout the United States as the enforcement arm of the Syndicate, composed of the national heads of organized crime. Originally a gang of neighborhood thugs in Brooklyn, N.Y., they soon came to the attention of Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, a member of the Syndicate, who extended their activities to the national scene. With Albert Anastasia, allegedly the connection between the Troop, as the gunmen of Murder, Inc., were called, and the Syndicate, the band committed well over a hundred murders. They continued their criminal acts for years, allegedly protected by politicians, and it was not until the late 1930s with the investigations of Thomas E. Dewey that their existence came to public notice. Law-enforcement authorities led (1940–41) an assault on Murder, Inc.; it resulted in numerous convictions and several executions, including that of Buchalter. However, the mysterious death of Abe (Kid Twist) Reles, chief killer of Murder, Inc., and the state's star witness, hampered the prosecution.

See B. Turkus and S. Feder, Murder, Inc. (1951, repr. 1972).

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murder get away with (blue) murder succeed in doing whatever one chooses without being punished or suffering any disadvantage.
Murder, Inc. in the US of the 1930s, originally and especially in New York, a network of gangsters controlling organized crime and carrying out assassinations for money.
murder will out the crime of murder can never be successfully concealed; proverbial saying, early 14th century.

See also killing no murder.

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"murder." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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murder sb. OE. morðor = Goth. maurþr :- Gmc. *murþram, f. IE. *mṛt- (see MORTAL), repr. also by Gmc. *mortam (whence OE., OS., ON. morō, (O)HG. mord, Du. moord); reinforced in ME. by OF. murdre (mod. meurtre) — Gmc., whence the establishment of the forms with u and d.
So murder vb. XIII. prob. f. the sb. murderer XIII. partly f. the vb., partly — AN murdreour.

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"murder." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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murder Unlawful killing of a person, performed with malice or forethought. Committed accidentally, under sufficient provocation or in self-defence, a killing may not constitute murder. See also manslaughter

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of crows: a flockBrewer.

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murderBarbuda, barracuda, Bermuda, brooder, Buxtehude, colluder, deluder, excluder, intruder, Judah, Luda, Neruda, obtruder, Tudor •mouthbrooder •Buddha, do-gooder •Kaunda, Munda •judder, rudder, shudder, udder •numdah •asunder, blunder, chunder, hereunder, plunder, rotunda, sunder, thereunder, thunder, under, up-and-under, wonder •husbander • seconder • Shetlander •mainlander • Greenlander •Queenslander • midlander •Little Englander •Highlander, islander •Icelander • Hollander • lowlander •Newfoundlander • woodlander •colander • Canada • Kannada •ambassador • forwarder •birder, Gerda, girder, herder, murder

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murdererAltamira, chimera, clearer, Elvira, era, hearer, Hera, hetaera, interferer, lempira, lira, lire, Madeira, Megaera, monstera, rangatira, rearer, scorzonera, sera, shearer, smearer, sneerer, steerer, Thera, Utsire, Vera •acquirer, admirer, enquirer, firer, hirer, inquirer, requirer, wirer •devourer, flowerer, scourer •Angostura, Bonaventura, bravura, Bujumbura, caesura, camera obscura, coloratura, curer, Dürer, durra, Estremadura, figura, fioritura, Führer, insurer, Jura, juror, Madura, nomenklatura, procurer, sura, surah, tamboura, tempura, tourer •labourer (US laborer) • Canberra •Attenborough •Barbara, Scarborough •Marlborough • Farnborough •Deborah • rememberer •Gainsborough • Edinburgh •Aldeburgh • blubberer •Loughborough •lumberer, slumberer •Peterborough •Berbera, gerbera •manufacturer • capturer • lecturer •posturer • torturer • nurturer •philanderer • gerrymanderer •slanderer •renderer, tenderer •dodderer •squanderer, wanderer •borderer • launderer • flounderer •embroiderer • Kundera •blunderer, plunderer, thunderer, wonderer •murderer • amphora • pilferer •offerer • sufferer •staggerer, swaggerer •sniggerer •lingerer, malingerer •treasurer • usurer • injurer • conjuror •perjurer • lacquerer •Ankara, hankerer •bickerer, dickerer •tinkerer • conqueror • heuchera •cellarer • cholera •camera, stammerer •armourer (US armorer) •ephemera, remora •kumara • woomera • murmurer •Tanagra • genera • gunnera •Tampere, tamperer •Diaspora •emperor, Klemperer, tempera, temperer •caperer, paperer •whimperer • whisperer • opera •corpora • tessera • viscera • sorcerer •adventurer, venturer •batterer, chatterer, flatterer, natterer, scatterer, shatterer •banterer •barterer, charterer •plasterer • shelterer • pesterer •et cetera • caterer •titterer, twitterer •potterer, totterer •fosterer •slaughterer, waterer •falterer, palterer •saunterer • poulterer •bolsterer, upholsterer •loiterer • roisterer • fruiterer •flutterer, mutterer, splutterer, stutterer, utterer •adulterer • musterer • plethora •gatherer • ditherer • furtherer •favourer (US favorer), waverer •deliverer, shiverer •hoverer •manoeuvrer (US maneuverer) •discoverer, recoverer

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