Violent Crime: Crime Against a Person

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Violent Crime: Crime Against a Person

On the evening of January 27, 2001, Roxana Verona arrived at the home of Susanne and Half Zantop for dinner. Verona and the Zantops were professors at Dartmouth, an elite Ivy League university in the peaceful wooded town of Hanover, New Hampshire. The Zantops lived in Etna, a village just outside Hanover. When Verona arrived at the Zantop home, she immediately sensed something might be wrong. Although the lights were shining brightly through the windows, it was eerily quiet. Verona entered the house, calling out to let the Zantops know she had arrived. When she came to the study she was greeted by a horrific scene: the Zantops lay in pools of dried blood, murder victims in their own upscale, rural home.

The murderers turned out to be two middle-class, intelligent teenagers—sixteen-year-old Jimmy Parker and seventeen-year-old Robert Tulloch. The boys robbed the Zantops so they could travel the world, and killed their victims to eliminate witnesses. As news of the murders spread through the media, shocked Americans were reminded that violent crime was a very real part of their country, even reaching into its most quiet towns.

Across the country in another peaceful town, Springfield, Oregon, fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel had become a murderer. On May 20, 1998, Kinkel murdered his parents, who were both teachers, then went to his high school the next day and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. Kinkel killed one student and wounded eight, one of whom later died. The Springfield tragedy was part of an epidemic of school shootings that had escalated in the United States, beginning in late 1995 with the shooting of two high school teachers and one student by another student in Tennessee.

By the early twenty-first century many Americans had either been victimized by violent crime or knew someone who had. Everyone listened to news stories reporting violence on a daily basis. In 2002 one violent crime occurred every 22.1 seconds. Violent crime includes murder, robbery, aggravated assault (a particularly violent attack), and rape (forcing someone to have sexual relations). Sniper attacks, crimes of hate, and stalking also victimize U.S. citizens.

Reliable criminal statistics (compiled figures) on violent crime, recorded since 1930, are kept by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). Statistics of violent crime are collected from 17,000 local and state law enforcement agencies under the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. Once compiled they are published in a yearly book titled Crime in the United States. Statistics in this chapter are from the UCR Program's 2002 publication.

Crimes against individuals

Homicide and murder both mean the killing of one human being by another. While in conversation, Americans commonly use the words murder and homicide as if they were the same, but homicide has a broader definition than murder. Homicide includes both murder and legally "justifiable" killing. The law recognizes that not all killings are criminal. The classic example is killing in war when the victim is part of an enemy force.

The law also recognizes killing in self-defense as justifiable or acceptable homicide. When a person is threatened with serious injury or death but manages to kill the attacker, he or she has killed in self-defense. Likewise if a law enforcement officer should kill an individual who is in the process of committing a felony (serious) crime, the killing is considered justifiable homicide. On the other hand, murder is not justifiable homicide but criminal homicide. Murder is an unlawful or illegal killing of another human being.

Murder and manslaughter

Murder is the most serious violent crime, punishable by long prison sentences, often life in prison, and in some cases by death (capital punishment). Each state has slightly different laws pertaining to murder but it is commonly divided into murder and manslaughter.

Murder is the premeditated intent to kill with no justifiable reason to do so. Premeditation means the killer thought ahead or planned the killing. Without provocation means that a killer had no reasonable explanation for committing the murder and taking someone's life. Murder may also occur under the felony-murder rule. If an individual is in the process of committing a felony, such as rape or robbery, and someone is killed (other than the person committing the crime) the charge is murder even though no actual premeditation of the murder occurred. In such a case, the offender acted in a dangerous manner and this behavior caused another person's death.

Hate Crime

The UCR Program defines hate crime as "a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." Bias is another word for prejudice.

About 49.7 percent of the total number of hate crimes against individuals were motivated by racial prejudice; 18 percent by bias against a victim's religion; 16.4 percent against a victim's sexual orientation; and 15.3 percent against a victim's ethnicity or national origin.

Of the offenders whose race was determined, 61.8 percent were white, 21.8 percent were black, 1.2 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, and 0.6 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native.

The difference between murder and manslaughter is the absence of premeditation in manslaughter. Manslaughter is divided into two categories, voluntary and involuntary. With voluntary manslaughter the intent to kill is present and rises suddenly out of intense emotion, though it is not premeditated. It is often referred to as an action taken in the "heat of passion." The killer is provoked by the victim into an uncontrollable anger or rage. There can be no cooling off period between the provoking action and the killing. A typical situation of voluntary manslaughter would be a bar fight where the people involved have been drinking or are legally drunk. Voluntary manslaughter is also known as non-negligent manslaughter, as defined in the FBI's UCR Program.

With involuntary manslaughter, there is no intention to kill. Instead the killing is accidental and due to negligence (carelessness). Negligence implies that the offender failed to use necessary caution, or was distracted in a possibly dangerous situation. Examples of involuntary manslaughter are handling of a loaded gun that accidentally goes off killing another person in the room, or hunting accidents where the hunter mistakes another human for an animal.

Voluntary manslaughter is a less serious offense than murder but still results in prison time, often lengthy depending on the laws of the state where it is committed. Involuntary manslaughter also may carry penalties. Killing in self-defense is the only killing where the offender is released from responsibility. The offender claiming self-defense must prove that he or she acted only when in obvious, direct danger of severe injury or death.

National murder statistics

The UCR Program reported 16,204 murders in the United States in 2002. This number translates into a murder rate of 5.6 crimes per 100,000 residents. One murder occurred every 32.4 minutes in 2002. These figures and all figures in this section include the crime of murder and voluntary manslaughter together and are from the FBI's UCR records.

In 1933 at the height of the Great Depression (1929–41), America's worst economic slump, murder rates were roughly twice the 2002 rate. By the mid-1950s, during economic prosperity, the rate was down to 4.5 per 100,000 residents. The rate peaked in 1980 at 10.7 per 100,000 and was at another high point in 1991 at 10.5 per 100,000. The rate has steadily decreased since the early 1990s to 6.8 per 100,000 in 1997 and to 5.6 in 2002. In actual numbers of murders, there were 18,210 in 1997 compared to 16,204 in 2002.

Economic or financial well-being usually contributes to the variation in crime rates. Also widely recognized as a reason for declining rates in the early 1990s is the aging of the baby boom generation. The baby boom population bulge began with an increased U.S. birth rate in 1946 following World War II and did not slow until about 1962. Murder rates, as with all crime rates, are age-dependent with the highest number of offenders in the seventeen to thirty-four-year-old age bracket. By the 1990s most baby boomers were at least thirty years old with most well past the thirty-four-year-old mark. By the early to mid-1990s, there were considerably fewer individuals in the seventeen to thirty-four age bracket than in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, leading to lower murder numbers.

Leading factors

Another important factor in crime rates is the gender or sex of the offender. Over 90.3 percent of those arrested for murder in 2002 were male. Murder victims were 76.8 percent male. Race, too, was another factor as black males accounted for 49.8 percent of murderers, whites and Hispanics accounted for 47.8 percent, and 2.4 percent of murders were committed by other races. The UCR combines white and Hispanic statistics together. Black victims were generally murdered by black offenders and white victims by white offenders. The murder weapon of choice was a firearm—76.6 percent handguns, 5.1 percent rifles, 5.1 percent shotguns, and 13.2 percent other or unknown types.

When the relationship between offender and victim was known, about 25 percent of murders occurred between strangers. These murders tend to be "thrill" killings—done for the immediate thrill and with no personal motive. Examples are random drive by shootings, dropping a rock on a car from an overpass or bridge, or shooting at cars on highways. Roughly 22 percent of murders were between family members. In 53 percent of murders the offender and victim were acquaintances. At the start of the twenty-first century approximately one thousand individuals per year were killed in gang-related activities. The victim may or may not have known his or her murderer. Teenage gangs often operate in a culture where violence and killing is not only expected but encouraged.

Over time, the most common traits of murderers have found them to be male, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, and an acquaintance of the victim. The weapon of choice is a firearm.

Serial and mass murder

Serial killers are those who, over a period of time longer than one day, kill a number of victims. In contrast, a mass murderer kills numerous individuals in a single violent episode that may last from a few minutes to a few hours until the attacker is caught, killed, or escapes.

While most serial killers are male, approximately 14 percent are female. Ted Bundy (1946–1989) was an infamous serial killer who killed a confirmed thirty young women across the United States between 1974 and 1978. (The real total of Bundy's victims is suspected to be over one hundred.) Bundy was handsome, well educated, and received intense pleasure from the act of killing. His killings began in Washington State, moved to Utah, then to Florida where his last murders occurred. Bundy was captured in 1976 and convicted of kidnapping. He escaped twice in 1977 and was recaptured for the final time in February 1978. Bundy was convicted of three murders and executed on January 24, 1989.

Beginning in 1996 and moving into the 2000s, a number of mass murders occurred in U.S. schools. Kip Kinkel, described at the beginning of this chapter, killed two students and seriously wounded seven others when he opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in the lunchroom of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. Other examples of mass murders are a gunman opening fire in a shopping mall or a disgruntled worker firing at a boss and coworkers.


The UCR Program defines robbery in Crime in the United States, 2002 "as the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear." The seriousness of a robbery and its punishment is not based on the value of what was stolen, but on how much force was used to frighten the victim. This is why robbery is considered a crime against a person not a crime against property.

Armed robbery in which the robber threatens the victim with a weapon receives the harshest penalties since the victim could be seriously harmed. Robbery is punishable by imprisonment in a state or federal prison. Armed robbery results in a longer prison term than a robbery without the use of a weapon. Unlike murders, most victims of robbery do not know their robber. Robberies often take place in public places, on streets or sidewalks, rather than inside buildings or homes.

The motivation for most robberies is the need for cash to support a lifestyle of gambling and partying, buying drugs, or simply to be the most successful and powerful street hustler. Robbers on the street strike suddenly with a threatening pose that allows the victim no time to think how to escape or stop the robbery. Most victims hand over what is demanded.

Robbers are generally rational or reasonable individuals who commit their crime after deciding what type of person, where, and how they will rob and get away with their crime. Individual targets are often those who do not look like they will fight back such as elderly men or women. People in poor neighborhoods are frequently targeted as they are more likely to carry cash than those in more affluent neighborhoods where credit cards are preferred to cash. Staking out victims at cash machines is common. Convenience stores and gas stations open late at night are also favorite targets. While banks present a more difficult target, the temptation of larger amounts of cash can prove irresistible.

National robbery statistics

The UCR Program reported an estimated 420,637 robberies in 2002. This number translates into an overall U.S. robbery rate of 145.9 offenses per 100,000 residents. One robbery occurred every 1.2 minutes in 2002. Just as murder rates have declined since the early 1990s, so too have robbery rates. The 2002 robbery rate represents an 11.8 percent decline from rates in 1998 and a large 43 percent decline from rates in 1993. A majority of robberies occurred in cities—an overall city rate of 208.1 robberies per 100,000 residents. Cities with populations of 250,000 and above had the highest rate in 2002—395.2 robberies per 100,000. Cities under 10,000 had only a rate of 54.2 robberies per 100,000. Rural counties had a lower rate of 17.7 per 100,000 residents.

The highest percentage of robberies occurred against people on the street—42.8 percent of the total number of robberies in 2002. Those victims lost an average of $1,045 per robbery. As a group, commercial establishments such as restaurants, bars, and hotels suffered 14.6 percent of robberies, with a $1,676 average loss per robbery. Private residences were close behind at 13.5 percent, recording an average loss of $1,340 per robbery. Convenience stores, gas stations, and banks experienced 6.5 percent, 2.7 percent, and 2.3 percent of robberies, respectively. Convenience stores lost an average of $665 for each robbery, service stations $679, and banks $4,763. Various other locations, such as bars or cafes, make up the remaining 17.7 percent of robbery targets.

Leading factors

Of the individuals arrested for robbery in 2002, 61.4 percent were under the age of twenty-five but most were adults at least eighteen years of age. Males accounted for 89.7 percent of arrests. Blacks accounted for 54.1 percent of arrests while 44.1 percent were whites and Hispanics, and 1.7 percent were other races including Asian, Native American, Alaskan Native, and Pacific Islander. Robbers used firearms 42.1 percent of the time, but 39.9 percent of robbers "strong armed" their victims, using their fists and feet as weapons. Knives were used in 8.7 percent of robberies and various other weapons made up the remaining 9.3 percent.

Aggravated assault

The UCR Program defines aggravated assault as "an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm."

Aggravated assault requires an actual physical attack on the victim that is intended to cause severe harm. Frequently, the only difference between a murder charge and aggravated assault charge is that the victim lives. A charge of assault, not aggravated assault, may not involve actual physical contact but can be brought when the victim experiences an unsuccessful attempted assault or was threatened in some manner by an offender.

Statistics and leading factors

In 2002 the UCR Program reported an estimated 894,348 aggravated assaults in the United States or an estimated 310.1 aggravated assaults per 100,000 residents. One aggravated assault occurred every 35.3 seconds in 2002. Just as with murder and robbery, assault rates have declined since the early 1990s. The 2002 rates were 14.2 percent lower than the 1998 rates, and 29.6 percent lower than the 1993 rates. Cities with populations of 250,000 and above had the highest rate in 2002—577.5 offenses per 100,000 residents. Towns under 10,000 in population had a rate of 219.1 offenses per 100,000, and rural counties had the lowest rate of 186.0 offenses per 100,000 residents.

Of the reported aggravated assaults in 2002, 79.8 percent of arrests were males. Blacks accounted for 63.4 of arrests, whites and Hispanics accounted for 34.2 percent, and all other races accounted for 2.4 percent. The most commonly used weapons were blunt instruments (such as a baseball bat or hammer), fists, and feet. Firearms and knives were used in about 12 percent of aggravated assaults.

Assault in American homes

Assaults within U.S. homes have been getting an increasing amount of attention in recent years; yet the majority of in-home assaults are not reported to law enforcement authorities because they are usually between family members. This means there are far more aggravated assaults than indicated in UCR figures. Two types of assaults occur in the home: spouse, or husband-wife, abuse and child abuse.

Spouse abuse is difficult to estimate but best guesses by law enforcement agencies put the number of families experiencing spouse abuse at sixteen out of one hundred. Agencies estimate that as high as 60 to 70 percent of calls for help in the evening and night hours involve in-home disputes. Spouse abuse involves physically injuring a partner with varying severity or cruelty. Spouse abusers are also called "batterers." Many spouse abusers were abused as children and see it as a part of daily life. Spousal abuse may occur suddenly and violently in a burst of anger or it may occur regularly over time in an attempt to humiliate the partner. Abuse is often driven by resentment over feelings of dependence on the spouse or feelings of deep insecurity. Excessive alcohol use is frequently present in abuse cases.

Child abuse takes three forms: physical abuse, child neglect, and sexual abuse. Physical abuse involves unreasonable disciplinary actions such as beatings, burning, or holding a child under water. Neglect is failure to feed, care, or provide shelter for the child. Sexual abuse of children includes rape (forced sexual relations), incest (sexual relations with a parent or caregiver), or molestation (forced physical sexual touching). As in spousal abuse, adults who abuse children were most likely abused themselves in childhood.

Two additional situations seem to increase the chances of child abuse in family. Children who live in blended families where one adult is not biologically related to them seem to be at greater risk for abuse. Parents who are lonely, isolated, or unable to find help at times of crisis in their personal life can also be prone to child abuse.

Forcible rape

The UCR defines forcible rape as "the carnal (bodily) knowledge of a female forcibly against her will. Assaults or attempts to commit rape by force or threat of force are also included; however, statutory rape (without force) . . . are excluded." Carnal knowledge means having sexual relations or intercourse with the female.

Statutory rape, mentioned in the UCR definition as rape without force and not included in UCR statistics, involves an adult and teenager under the age of consent. Each state defines the exact ages and age difference of the partners. Statutory rape occurs when sexual relations are not forced on the teenager, because the individual has apparently agreed to the act. It is a crime, however, because many teenagers are considered too young to make such a decision or to give their consent. Statutory rape cases are very difficult to prosecute since juries do not like to convict if the two individuals seemed to agree to have sex—even if the victim was quite young or there was a large age difference between the victim and adult sexual partner.

Rapes involve the offender's need to feel sexual power and power over the victim. Anger and aggression can also be part of the crime. Some rapes are committed with sudden attacks in public areas such as parks or streets. These generally occur in hidden areas like alleys under the cover of night. Other rapes occur after the offender has befriended the victim with either conversation or by offering a ride in a car. Some offenders are serial rapists, committing the crime again and again with different victims. Rapes occur at a higher rate in summer months, peaking in July since people are out more and later at night making them vulnerable as victims. Besides forcible rape where the offender is completely unknown to the victim, other forcible rapes are called "acquaintance rape," which includes date rape, marital rape (between two people who are legally married to each other), and gang rape (forced sexual relations with more than one person).


Stalking is a behavior defined as repeated, unwanted physical closeness or communication from a person that leaves the victim feeling threatened. Often the stalker or offender makes verbal or written threats to the victim.

Media personalities such as singer Madonna (1958–), director Steven Spielberg (1946–), and actress Gwyneth Paltrow (1972–) are well-known victims of stalking, but most victims are not celebrities and are acquainted with their stalkers. The majority of stalkers are men, but some women stalk as well. Women victims are often stalked by former boyfriends or spouses. Stalkers generally become obsessed with their victims, seeking power over them and their lives through frightening incidents and many stalkers believe they have a relationship with their victims (though it is usually imaginary). Stalkers are sometimes motivated by revenge or by rejection. The Internet has made it very easy for stalkers to get information about victims, so they can send threatening emails as well.

By the 1990s states began to realize stalkers were dangerous criminals who often end up doing harm to or even killing their victims. California law classifies stalking as a felony (serious crime) with punishment of up to five years in prison.

Acquaintance rape and gang rape

Date rape occurs when a male and female are dating one another, but one person forces the other to have sex. Date rape may occur at any time during the dating relationship. Some offenders feel that their date owes them sexual relations because they have been dating for a while. Alcohol or drugs are sometimes involved. Date rapes are sometimes common on college campuses; however, few of the rapes are reported if the victim feels partly to blame.

Marital rape was first defined in most states in the 1980s and 1990s. For centuries many believed the crime of rape could not be committed between a man and woman who were married to each other. In the late twentieth century, however, law enforcement and the legal community realized marital rape was often associated with spousal abuse. Marital rape has nothing to do with a loving relationship; instead it tends to be associated with beatings and is so violent the victimized partner is physically injured.

Gang rape involves multiple offenders and a single victim. The victim may or may not be known to the offenders. Like other rapes, the use of alcohol and drugs may be involved. Gang rape generally occurs at night in secluded public or private places. Gang rape involves showing off aggression and power to one's peers through sexual relations.

Difficult prosecutions

Rape, in all but the most blatant or obvious cases, is very difficult to prosecute and to obtain a conviction. Until recently, a conviction almost always demanded proof the victim strongly resisted her attacker, that force was used by the attacker, and proof from an outside source such as a medical exam or a witness that the accused was the actual offender.

If the victim knows the attacker, conviction can be very challenging because the attacker can say the two were dating or had a relationship. Yet by the beginning of the twenty-first century, many states had or were adopting reforms in rape laws, dropping many of the requirements to prove the crime was committed as well as making it easier for victims to prove their cases in court.

In the 1980s and 1990s states and federal lawmakers created "shield laws." These laws excluded the prior sexual history of the rape victims from being part of the court proceedings unless it was somehow directly related to the case at hand. Shield laws vary from state to state allowing trial judges the ability to decide if prior sexual history will or will not be allowed. The use of shield laws was upheld in 1991 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Michigan v. Lucas. The ruling supported the protection provided to the victims by the shield laws while they pursued prosecution of their attackers. Another attempt to strengthen rape laws came when Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The act allows rape victims to sue their attacker in federal court for violation of their civil rights.

National forcible rape statistics

The UCR Program estimates there were 95,136 rapes on females in 2002. This number means forcible rapes were committed on 64.8 out of every 100,000 females in the United States. One forcible rape occurred every 5.5 minutes in 2002. Although this rate was an increase over the 2001 rate of 62.6, the rate has been declining over the past decade. In 1999 it was 80.4 per 100,000 females. Just as with murder, robbery, and aggravated assaults, rape rates have been declining since the early 1990s. When examining rape rates, it should be kept in mind that the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) estimates that roughly half of attempted rapes are not reported to the police. Victims often feel they will not be believed, that the rape will be difficult to prove causing them humiliation, or they may simply believe their accusation will lead to no corrective results. The NCVS, established in 1973, is maintained by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and provides data on crime incidents, victims, and trends.

"Three Strikes" Laws

"Three strikes and you're out" laws, also called habitual felony laws, state that a criminal who is convicted of his or her third felony must remain in prison for an extended period of time, sometimes for life. Although various forms of these "get tough" laws for repeat offenders have existed for centuries, twenty-two states and the federal government passed new habitual felony laws between 1993 and 1995. The laws became commonly known as the "three strikes" laws.

Overall crime rates in the United States have been on a steady rise since the late 1960s. By the early 1990s, television news coverage of horrific crimes, often committed by individuals with previous felony convictions or by those out of prison on parole, reached a large segment of the U.S. public. It was reasonable for many to assume that repeat offenders would never reform, would continue to commit felonies, and should be locked up for longer periods of time than a first-time offender. Public pressure to get tough and keep the most violent repeat criminals locked up indefinitely caused state legislatures to pass the "three strikes" laws. After ten years of implementing these penalties, however, some states have encountered negative consequences. The laws remain controversial.

Age and race factors

Police estimate they make arrests in one-half of the reported rape cases, with many others not resulting in arrests. According to 2002 figures, 16.7 percent of those arrested for forcible rape were juveniles or youths under eighteen. Adults, eighteen and over, made up 83.3 percent of arrests. Of the juvenile arrests, 62 percent were white and Hispanic youths, 36 percent were black youths, and the rest were of other races. The juvenile arrest percentages mirrored the overall adult arrest rate percentages of 63.4 percent whites, 34 percent blacks, and 2.6 percent of other races.

For More Information


Allison, June, and Lawrence Wrightsman. Rape: The Misunderstood Crime. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2002: UniformCrime Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2003.

Inglis, Ruth. Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Children. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.

Siegel, Larry J. Criminology: The Core. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Wright, Richard, and Scott Decker. Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups andStreet Culture. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Web Sites

Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"Uniform Crime Reports." Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (accessed on August 20, 2004).