views updated Jun 08 2018



Homicide has been defined as "the killing of one human being by the act, procurement, or omission of another" (Black, p. 867). However, federal homicide statistics reflect the police classification of homicide deaths as either murder or nonnegligent manslaughter, with deaths caused by negligence, suicide, or accident excluded. Some deaths that are not included in these federal statistics may ultimately be ruled homicides by a coroner or a court. Reported statistical data derive from various sources, including the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). Homicide figures reported from these databases are estimates, rather than exact numbers, because: (1) the classification is based on police investigation rather than coroner findings or judicial determinations; (2) many homicides are unsolved, resulting in the omission of data related to offender, and sometimes victim, characteristics; and (3) state agencies may fail to report details relating to homicides. These omissions in the available data may result in biased conclusions. For instance, the SHR does not include details related to approximately 8 percent of the homicides reported in the UCR, so conclusions from the SHR may be biased.

Despite these limitations, it is believed that homicide is the least underreported of any serious crime in the United States. Available data underscore the increasing frequency with which homicide occurs in U.S. society. As an example, the nation's murder rate in 1997 was 6.8 per 100,000 persons, compared to a rate of 4.6 per 100,000 in 1950.

Once considered to be an issue for law enforcement only, homicide is now recognized as a major public health problem (Novello, Shosky, and Froehlke). Because of disparities in the risk of homicide across subgroups, homicide must be considered as an issue of ethical, as well as public health, concern.


Homicide data for the years 1976 to 1999 indicate that, compared to whites, blacks are six times more likely to be homicide victims and eight times more likely to commit homicide. Males represent nearly 75 percent of all homicide victims and almost 90 percent of all offenders. Compared to females, males are three times more likely to be killed and eight times more likely to commit homicide. Younger individuals are also at greater risk; almost one-third of victims and nearly one-half of offenders are under the age of twenty-five (Fox and Zawitz).

Homicide among intimate partners and family members remains a major concern, despite decreases in the rates of such events. In comparison with males, females are more likely to be killed by their intimate partners (defined as current or former spouses and current or former boyfriends and girlfriends, including those of the same sex). Women in the United States are at higher risk of homicide victimization than women in any other high-income society (Hemenway, Shinoda-Tagawa, and Miller). In 1998 the deaths of almost three-quarters of all women murdered were attributable to their intimate partners (Rennison and Welchans). For the period from 1993 through 1999, intimate partners killed 32 percent of all female murder victims ages twenty to twenty-four (Rennison, 2001). Analysis of homicide data for the years 1981 through 1998 indicate that the highest rates of intimate partner homicide during these years were among black and white females in the southern and western states (Paulozzi, Saltzman, Thompson, et al.), and most female victims were killed by an unarmed partner. Additionally, homicide is a major contributor to deaths occurring during pregnancy (Dannenberg, Carter, Lawson, et al.).

Women who kill their intimate partners often do so in response to repeated batterings. These beatings may result in the development of trauma symptoms, such as anxiety and psychic numbing, as well as lowered self-esteem and the development of self-destructive coping responses to the violence. The victimization may also lead to a total loss of the woman's social self. In general, a battered woman does not attack her abuser when harm is imminent but, instead, during a hiatus in the assaults. The incidence of female-perpetrated partner homicide appears to be lower in states that have strong domestic-violence legislation and greater access to supportive services such as shelters, crisis lines, and support groups (Dutton).

Disparities also exist in the disposition of cases involving intimate partner homicide. Of the 156 wives and 256 husbands convicted in 1988 in the United States for murdering their partners, wives received prison sentences that, on average, were twenty years shorter than those received by convicted husbands, even when comparing only those husbands and wives who were not provoked prior to the homicide (Langan and Dawson).

The United States has the highest rate of childhood homicide of any industrialized nation in the world (CDC). In fact, homicide represents the leading cause of infant deaths due to injury in the United States (Overpeck, Brenner, Trumble, et al.). An estimated 37,000 children were killed in the United States between 1976 and 1994, and one-fifth of these murders were committed by a family member (Greenfield). Of all children under the age of five who were murdered from 1976 to 1999, 61 percent were killed by parents or stepparents, and an additional 29 percent were killed by other relatives or by a male acquaintance. Most of the children killed were male and most of the offenders were male (Fox and Zawitz). Children under the age of eighteen accounted for nearly 11 percent of all murder victims in the United States in 1994, and nearly half of these children were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Among those killed in this age group, nearly 70 percent were killed with a handgun, while almost 20 percent were killed by another child. In addition, infants born to very young mothers have an increased risk of homicide (Overpeck, Brenner, Trumble, et al.).

The number of homicides involving adult or juvenile gang violence has increased fourfold since 1976 (Fox and Zawitz), and an increasing proportion of these homicides are now associated with firearm use. In Los Angeles County, for example, firearms were used in 94.5 percent of homicides in 1994, compared to 71.4 percent in 1979. Homicides committed with semiautomatic weapons also increased substantially during this period (Hutson, Anglin, and Kyriacou).

As of 2000, firearm use accounted for approximately 70 percent of all murders in the United States (Rennison, 2001). From 1973 to 1999, more than 80 percent of all workplace homicides were committed with a firearm (Duhart). The rate of homicides involving firearms has historically been higher in the southern states than in other regions (USDOJ, Homicide Trends). This regional variation has been attributed to both sociocultural factors and to the ease of access to firearms in the South.

Despite the increase in gun-related homicides, numerous state legislatures eased restrictions on the availability and use of firearms during the closing decades of the twentieth century, allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons even into churches and some government buildings. Public surveys indicate, however, that such increased gun-carrying actually reduces, rather than increases, public perceptions of safety (Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller).

The risk of homicide is also associated with the use of alcohol or illicit substances by the perpetrator and/or the victim immediately prior to the killing (Pernanen). Chronic alcohol use has been found to increase by up to tenfold an individual's risk of being a homicide victim (Rivara, Mueller, Somes, et al.). It is believed that the use of alcohol and illicit substances may adversely affect an individual's ability to process and interpret information correctly, thereby increasing the likelihood of miscommunication, which may lead to violence. Additionally, because alcohol use may impair an individual's judgment, intoxicated persons may be more likely to place themselves in situations that entail a high risk of violence. Chronic alcohol use may also indicate that an individual has an antisocial personality disorder, which is associated with increased rates of violence and victimization (Rivara, Mueller, Somes, et al.).


Prevention efforts may focus on one or more of three levels. Primary prevention efforts attempt to prevent the onset of a condition—such as preventing violent behavior. These efforts often utilize a broad-based approach aimed at the general public, including messages urging the use of nonviolent means to resolve disputes and problems. Secondary prevention efforts target populations considered to be at high risk, such as individuals who have already committed some act of violence. Tertiary prevention is analogous to damage control after an event has already occurred, and most frequently consists of arrest and incarceration following the commission of a homicide.

Various primary prevention strategies have been utilized in an attempt to reduce the relatively high rates of homicide in the United States. Numerous jurisdictions have adopted child access prevention laws, which hold adults criminally liable for the unsafe storage of firearms in environments where children live or are present (Webster and Starnes). Such laws remain controversial, however, due to the ease with which children can obtain firearms outside of the household (Hardy). Pediatric-based counseling of parents to increase their safety-related behavior has also been recommended, but the effectiveness of this approach is questionable due to physicians' lack of time, their inability to accurately assess actual gun ownership among parents, and their perceived lack of credibility as a source of information (Hardy).

Homicide prevention efforts must also address the use of alcohol and other substances. Primary prevention efforts have included the imposition of increased excise taxes on alcohol, the use of anti-alcohol advertising and promotion, and the development of responsibility training programs for servers of alcohol (Rivara, Muller, Somes, et al.).

Secondary prevention efforts have included the counseling of individuals through court-ordered programs in an effort to intervene before violence becomes a pattern and before the violence escalates to the level of homicide. Healthcare providers are now more likely to ask female patients about domestic violence—in large part due to focused training of providers and recent accreditation requirements and legal mandates imposed on healthcare institutions. It is believed that the early identification of violence in the home, coupled with modifications in legal policy—such as the increased enforcement of laws prohibiting and punishing violence—will decrease the rate of intimate partner homicide. However, efforts also require that healthcare providers assess individuals' risk for becoming violent offenders before violence has begun, and to then refer those at high risk for appropriate intervention. Patient counseling by primary care providers to reduce excessive alcohol use and binge drinking may also help to reduce the rate of homicide by reducing the use of alcohol (Rivara, Muller, Somes, et al.).

Secondary prevention strategies also include the issuance of civil protection orders by courts. These orders prohibit individuals who have committed an act of intimate partner violence from further abusing their victims. In general, victims are more likely to seek such orders if they are financially independent from the perpetrator, if they are no longer living with him or her, and if they have seen family members or friends threatened or abused by the perpetrator (Wolf, Holt, Kernic, et al.).

tom christoffel (1995)

revised by sana loue

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Abuse, Interpersonal; Bioterrorism; Death; Death Penalty; Embryo and Fetus; Harm; Infanticide; Insanity and Insanity Defense; Medicine, Profession of; Mistakes, Medical; Pain and Suffering; Race and Racism; Right to Die: Policy and Law; Sexism; Smoking; Warfare


Black, Henry Campbell. 1951. Black's Law Dictionary, 5th edition. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 1997. "Rates of Homicide, Suicide, and Firearm-Related Deaths among Children—26 Industrialized Countries." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, CDC Surveillance Summaries 46(5): 101–105.

Craddock, Amy; Collins, James J.; and Timrots, Anita. 1994. Fact Sheet: Drug-Related Crime. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics [NCJ–140286].

Dannenberg, Andrew L.; Carter, Debra M.; Lawson, Hershel W.; et al. 1995. "Homicide and Other Injuries as Causes of Maternal Deaths in New York City, 1987 through 1991." American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 172(5): 1557–1564.

Duhart, Detis T. 2001. Special Report: Violence in the Workplace, 1993–1999. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics [NCJ–190076].

Dutton, Donald G. 1995. The Domestic Assault of Women: Psychological and Criminal Justice Perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Greenfield, Lawrence A. 1996. Child Victimizers: Violent Offenders and Their Victims. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics [NCJ–158625].

Gundersen, Linda. 2002. "Intimate Partner Violence: The Need for Primary Prevention in the Community." Annals of Internal Medicine 136: 637–640.

Hardy, Marjorie S. 2002. "Behavior-Oriented Approaches to Reducing Youth Gun Violence." Future of Children 12(Summer/Fall): 101–117.

Hemenway, David; Azrael, Deborah; and Miller, Matthew. 2001. "National Attitudes Concerning Gun Carrying in the United States." Injury Prevention 7: 282–285.

Hemenway, David; Shinoda-Tagawa, Tomoko; and Miller, Matthew. 2002. "Firearm Availability and Female Homicide Rates among 25 Populous High-Income Countries." Journal of the American Medical Women's Association 57: 100–104.

Hutson, H. Range; Anglin, Deirdre; Kyriacou, Demetrios N.; et al. 1995. "The Epidemic of Gang-Related Homicides in Los Angeles County from 1979 through 1994." Journal of the American Medical Association 274: 1031–1036.

Kalin, Jack R., and Brissie, Robert M. 2002. "A Case of Homicide by Injection with Lidocaine." Journal of Forensic Sciences 47: 1135–1138.

Langan, Patrick A., and Dawson, John M. 1995. Spouse Murder Defendants in Large Urban Counties. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Novello, Antonia C.; Shosky, John; and Froehlke, Robert. 1992. "From the Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service: A Medical Response to Violence." Journal of the American Medical Association 267: 3007.

O'Connor, James F., and Lizotte, Alan. 1979. "The 'Southern Subculture of Violence' Thesis and Patterns of Gun Ownership." Social Problems 25: 420–429.

Overpeck, Mary D.; Brenner, Ruth A.; Trumble, Ann C.; et al. 1998. "Risk Factors for Infant Homicide in the United States." New England Journal of Medicine 339: 1211–1216.

Paulozzi, L. J.; Saltzman, L. E.; Thompson, E. P.; et al. 2001. "Surveillance for Homicide among Intimate Partners—United States—1981–1988." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC Surveillance Summaries 50: 1–15.

Perkins, Craig. 1997. Special Report: Age Patterns of Victims of Serious Violent Crime. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics [NCJ–162031].

Rennison, Callie Marie. 2001a. Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey: Criminal Victimization 2000: Changes 1999–2000 with Trends 1993–2000. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rennison, Callie Marie. 2001b. Special Report: Intimate Partner Violence and Age of Victims, 1993–1999. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rennison, Callie Marie, and Welchans, Sarah. 2002. Special Report: Intimate Partner Violence. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rivara, Frederick P.; Mueller, Beth A.; Somes, Grant; et al. 1997. "Alcohol and Illicit Drug Abuse and the Risk of Violent Death in the Home." Journal of the American Medical Association 278: 569–575.

Webster, Daniel W., and Starnes, Marc. 2000. "Re-examining the Association between Child Access Prevention Gun Laws and Unintentional Shooting Deaths of Children." Pediatrics 106: 1466–1469.

Wolf, Marsha E.; Holt, Victoria L.; Kernic, Mary A.; et al. 2000. "Who Gets Protection Orders for Intimate Partner Violence?" American Journal of Preventive Medicine 19: 286–291.


Fox, James A., and Zawitz, Marianne W. 2002. "Homicide Trends in the U.S." United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available from <http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide>.


views updated May 23 2018


Homicide is a long-standing threat to a community's health, although it began to be widely recognized as a public health issue only in the 1990s. Homicide has traditionally been viewed through the lens of crime, though both criminal justice and public health approaches can be useful in efforts to reduce homicide.

Public health descriptions of homicide are based largely upon information provided on death certificates. In the United States, death certificate

Figure 1

information is reported to each county by funeral directors, physicians, and coroners. Each county reports the information to the state, which, in turn, reports it to the National Center for Health Statistics. These data cover every death (regardless of cause of death) for which there is a body. In vital statistics data, and for public health purposes, a homicide is defined as the death of a person at the hands of another.

Law enforcement data about crime are gathered by police and sheriff's officers at the local level, reported to a central agency at each state, and then forwarded on to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Participating in The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) is a voluntary process, and about 85 percent of police departmentscovering 96 percent of the U.S. populationparticipated in UCR as of 1991. The data about homicides are reported in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Supplementary Homicide Report. The FBI defines a homicide as murderthe willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another.

In addition to murders, the public health definition of homicide includes legally sanctioned killings (e.g., executions or homicides in self-defense). The law enforcement definition, however, is limited to criminal homicides. Because the

Figure 2

definitions differ, the numbers of homicides reported by each system also differ. The overall patterns of risk, however, are the same.


Homicide rates in the United States peaked in 1993, dropped substantially, and the homicide rate in 1998 was the same as that in 1968 (see Figure 1). Although people were alarmed at the high homicide rates in the early 1990s, these rates have vacillated throughout the twentieth century. Historians believe that homicide rates were probably even higher in the Middle Ages in Europe.

The United States has a much higher homicide rate than other industrialized countries (see Figure 2). Although not included in the chart, it many be useful to note that among those countries reporting rates to the World Health Organization, Colombia actually has the highest rate by far146.5 homicides per 100,000 males. The discrepancy appears to be largely due to the much higher number of deaths due to firearms in the United States. Even when compared to other countries where firearms are relatively common, homicide

Figure 3

rates in the United States are higher, possibly because firearms in the United States are much more likely to be handguns, whereas in other countries the guns are most likely to be rifles and shotguns. Handguns are the leading method of homicide in the United States.


Some people are at higher risk than others of becoming a homicide victim. Homicide victimization rates are highest for adolescents and young adults. Although the number of young people who are homicide victims has dropped since 1993, as it has for all age groups, adolescents and young adults continue to be the age group at highest risk of homicide. As shown in Figure 3, risk is higher for young men than young women, and risk is highest for young minority men, especially young African-American men.

Homicide is a major cause of mortality among infants and toddlers. In fact, homicide is the third leading cause of death of persons under five years or age. In most of these deaths, the assailant is the primary caretaker of the childeither a parent, stepparent, or partner of one of the parents. The most common method of death is by beating with personal weapons (i.e., hands, fists, or feet).

Although homicide rates are much higher among men than women, the rank of homicide as a cause of death is similar for men and women at all age groups. Firearms are the most common method of homicide for both male and female victims. The assailant and the location of the homicide differ by gender, however. Men are most likely to be killed by a friend or an acquaintance in a public place such as the street or a bar. Despite a general concern about "stranger danger," women are most likely to be killed by a current or former male intimate (i.e., a husband, boyfriend, exhusband, or former boyfriend) in the home. Research using data from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s found that a woman is more than two and one-half times as likely to be shot by her male intimate as to be shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned, or killed in any other way by a stranger.

Research indicates that having a gun in the home increases the chances that a person will become a victim of a homicide in the home and that a person will become a perpetrator of homicide, though more scientific research is needed before such risks can be assessed with confidence.


Public health approaches to homicide are based largely in one of two frameworks: injury prevention and, for lack of a more specific descriptor, social change. Injury prevention traces its roots to Hugh De Haven, a World War I pilot who, after surviving an airplane crash, spent many years studying the dynamics of traumatic force upon the body. Subsequent work focused on motor vehicle crashes. Researchers found that trying to change human behavior (e.g., trying to get drivers to "drive defensively") did not work very well. In fact, some efforts, such as drivers' training, did not reduce crash or injury rates at all. Strategies that focused on the environment and the vehicle itself proved to be more successful. Roads were designed not just to get from point A to point B, but with injury prevention in mind. For example, rigid signposts and bridge abutments have been modified so that even if a vehicle veers off the roadway, an injury is not inevitable. Vehicles are now equipped with collapsible steering wheels, reinforced side doors, seat belts and airbags, and antilock brakes. In other words, efforts switched from preventing a crash from occurring to preventing an injury if a crash occurred.

Injury prevention practitioners and researchers took this same model from unintentional injury (i.e., car crashes, drownings, and other "accidents") into their work with homicide. They set their sights clearly and specifically on one question: If the violence cannot be stopped, how can the violence be made less lethal? Given that guns (handguns in particular) are used in most homicides, it is not surprising that injury prevention efforts related to homicide focus mainly on handguns. Public health efforts to reduce gun fatalities have focused largely on the manufacture of guns (e.g., "smart guns" that are personalized so that only an authorized user can shoot the weapon). Policies related to the marketing and advertising, sale, possession, and use of guns also are points of intervention.

The social change, or social justice, approach emphasizes the inequalities that might give rise to lethal violence. The epidemiological data presented in the figures document how risk differs across nations and across groups in the United States. The social justice approach tries to understand why these differences might exist, and to identify ways to remedy the situation. For example, why do minorities have a much greater risk than white people of dying of homicide? Areas of investigation include differences in socioeconomic status(e.g., income and education), limited opportunities (e.g., inner-city schools that are more likely to be attended by minorities generally are less well funded than suburban schools), and the effects of institutional racism (e.g., racial profiling by law enforcement).

Social change approaches seek to expand educational, recreational, and employment opportunities, especially for young people. Related approaches have attempted to increase adolescents' problem-solving and anger-management skills so that violence becomes an option, not an inevitability. Evaluations of such programs have produced inconsistent results. Some, such as W. R. Hammond and B. R. Yung, say certain programs are effective, whereas others, including D. W. Webster, find few positive effects.

The injury prevention and social change approaches need not be in competition, although they are sometimes cast that way. Efforts to reduce homicide will likely be more successful if a multifaceted approach, rather than one single strategy, is taken.

Susan B. Sorenson

(see also: Domestic Violence; Public Health and the Law; Violence )


Biderman, A. D., and Lynch, J. P. (1991). Understanding Crime Incidence Statistics: Why the UCR Diverges from the NCS. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Hammond, W. R., and Yung, B. R. (1991). "Preventing Violence in At-Risk African-American Youth." Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 2:359373.

Kellermann, A. L., and Mercy, J. A. (1992). "Men, Women, and Murder: Gender-Specific Differences in Rates of Fatal Violence and Victimization." Journal of Trauma 33:15.

Kellermann, A. L.; Rivara, F. P.; Rushforth, N. B.; Banton, J. G.; Reay, D. T.; Francisco, J. T.; Locci, A. B.; Prodzinski, J.; Hackman, B. B.; and Somes, G. (1993). "Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home." New England Journal of Medicine 329:10841091.

Kleck, G., and Hogan, M. (1999). "National Case-Control Study of Homicide Offending and Gun Ownership." Social Problems 46:275293.

Robertson, L. S. (1980). "Crash Involvement of Teenaged Drivers When Driver Education Is Eliminated from High School." American Journal of Public Health 70:599603.

Sorenson, S. B., and Saftlas, A. F. (1994). "Violence and Women's Health. The Role of Epidemiology." Annals of Epidemiology 4:140145.

Spierenburg, P. (1996). "Long-Term Trends in Homicide: Theoretical Reflections and Dutch Evidence, Fifteenth to Twentieth Centuries." In The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages, eds. E. A. Johnson and E. H. Monkkonen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Teret, S. P., and Wintemute, G. J. (1993). "Policies to Prevent Firearm Injuries." Health Affairs 12:96108.

Webster, D. W. (1993). "The Unconvincing Case for School-Based Conflict Resolution." Health Affairs 12:126141.

Zimring, F. E., and Hawkins, G. (1997). Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. New York: Oxford.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The shedding of blood (shefikhut damim) is the primeval sin (Gen. 4:8) and throughout the centuries ranks in Jewish law as the gravest and most reprehensible of all offenses (cf. Maim. Guide, 3:41, and Yad, Roẓe'aḥ 1:4); "violence" in Genesis 6:13 was murder (Gen. R. 31:6), and the "very wicked sinners" of Sodom (Gen. 13:13) were murderers (Sanh. 109a). Bloodshed is the subject of the first admonition of a criminal nature in the Bible: "Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man" (Gen. 9:6). God will require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (Gen. 9:5). Blood unlawfully shed cries out to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10) and "pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it except by the blood of him who shed it" (Num. 35:33) (see *Bloodguilt). Blood unlawfully shed is innocent blood (dam naki) (Deut. 19:10, 13; 21:8; 27:25; i Sam. 19:5; ii Kings 21:16; 24:4; Isa. 59:7; Jer. 2:34; 7:6; 19:4; 22:3, 17; Joel 4:19; et al.), of the righteous (Ex. 23:7; ii Sam. 4:11; i Kings 2:32; Lam. 4:13), or blood shed "without cause" (dam ḥinnam) (i Kings 2:31; i Sam. 25:31). "Blood" is also often used as a term indicating general lawlessness and criminality (Isa. 1:15; Prov. 1:16, 18), "men of blood" are lawless criminals (ii Sam. 16:7–8; Prov. 29:10), and "cities of blood" places of corruption and wickedness (Nah. 3:1). Following the biblical reference to the image of God (Gen. 9:6), it is said that all bloodshed is a disparagement of God's own image (Tosef., Yev. 8:4; Gen. R. 34:4), and caused God to turn away from the land, the Temple to be destroyed (Tosef., Yoma 1:12; Shab. 33a; Sif. Num. 161) and dispersion (galut) to come into the world (Avot 5:9; Num. R. 7:10).

Killing is prohibited as one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), but the death penalty is prescribed only for willful murder (Ex. 21:12, 14; Lev. 24:17, 21; Num. 35:16–21; Deut. 19:11), as distinguished from unpremeditated manslaughter or accidental killing (Ex. 21:13; Num. 35:22,23; Deut. 19:4–6). In biblical law, willfulness or premeditation is established by showing either that a deadly instrument was used (Num. 35:16–18) or that the assailant harbored hatred or enmity toward the victim (Num. 35:20–21; Deut. 19:11). The willful murderer is executed, but the accidental killer finds asylum in a *city of refuge. The following special cases of killing are mentioned in the Bible: causing the death of a slave by excessive chastisement (Ex. 21:20–21) – the injunction "he shall surely be punished" (ibid.) was later interpreted to imply capital punishment (Sanh. 52b); when a man surprises a burglar at night and kills him, there is no "bloodguilt" on him – it is otherwise if the killing is committed during daytime (Ex. 22:1–2); a man is liable to capital punishment where death is caused by his ox which he knew to be dangerous and failed to guard properly (Ex. 21:29) – but the death penalty may be substituted by *ransom (Ex. 21:30); when death ensues as a result of assaulting a man "with stone or fist," though without intent to kill, the killing is regarded as murder (Ex. 21:18 e contrario; cf. also Mekh. Mishpatim, 6); when a man had been killed and the killer was unknown, a solemn ritual had to be performed (see *Eglah Arufah) in order that "the guilt for the blood of the innocent" should not remain among the people (Deut. 21:1–9).

Judicial murder was likewise regarded as "shedding the blood of the innocent" (Jer. 26:15; cf. Sus. 62) and hence as capital homicide (i Kings 21:19 as interpreted by Maim. Yad, Roẓe'aḥ, 4:9). Talmudic law greatly refined the distinctions between premeditated and unpremeditated homicide. Willful murder (mezid) was distinguished from "nearly willful" manslaughter (shogeg karov la-mezid), and unpremeditated homicide was subdivided into killings that were negligent, accidental, "nearly unavoidable" (shogeg karov le-ones), under duress (ones), or justifiable (Maim. Yad, Roẓe'aḥ Chs. 3–6). (For details of gradations of criminal intent, duress, and justification, see *Penal Law.)

"Justifiable" homicides include both those that are permissible, e.g., killing the burglar at night, and those that are obligatory, such as the participation in public executions (Lev. 20:2; 24:14; Deut. 17:7; 21:21; 22:21); killing a man in self-defense (Sanh. 72a), or to prevent a man from killing another or from committing rape (Sanh. 8:7); or the killing, in public, of persistent heretics and apostates (Maim. Yad, Roẓe'aḥ 4:10; Tur., Ḥm 425). Failure to perform any such obligatory killing is regarded as a sin, but is not punishable (Maim. ibid. 1:15–16). Where heathens threaten to kill a whole group unless one of them is delivered up for being killed, they must rather all be killed and not deliver anyone; but if the demand is for a named individual, then he should be surrendered (tj, Ter. 8:10 46b; Tosef., Ter. 7:20). While killing may be justifiable in self-defense or in defense of another's life (supra), the preservation of life (pikku'aḥ nefesh) in general does not afford justification to kill (Ket. 19a).

Talmudic law also further extended the principle that premeditation in murder is to be determined either by the nature of the instrument used or by previous expressions of enmity. While there are deadly instruments, such as iron bars or knives, the use of which would afford conclusive evidence of premeditation (Maim. Yad, Roẓe'aḥ, 3:4), the court will in the majority of cases have to infer premeditation not only from the nature of the instrument used, but also from other circumstances, such as which part of the victim's body was hit or served the assailant as his target, or the distance from which he hit or threw stones at the victim, or the assailant's strength to attack and the victim's strength to resist (ibid. 3:2; 5,6). Thus, where a man is pushed from the roof of a house, or into water or fire, premeditation will be inferred only when in all the proven circumstances – height of the house, depth of the water, respective strengths of assailant and victim – death was the natural consequence of the act and must have been intended by the assailant (ibid. 3:9). There is, however, notwithstanding the presence of premeditation, no capital murder in Jewish law, unless death is caused by the direct physical act of the assailant. Thus, starving a man to death, or exposing him to heat or cold or wild beasts, or in any other way bringing about his death by the anticipated – and however certain – operation of a supervening cause, would not be capital murder (ibid. 3:10–13). The same applies to murder committed not by the instigator himself, but by his agent or servant (ibid. 2:2; as to accomplices see *Penal Law).

As regards liability to capital punishment, it does not matter even that the victim was a newborn infant (Nid. 5:3; Maim., ibid. 2:6) provided he was viable for at least 30 days (ibid.), nor that the victim was so old or sick as to be about to die anyhow (Sanh. 78a; Maim. ibid. 2:7); but when a man was in extremis from fatal wounds inflicted on him by others, it would not be capital murder to kill him (ibid.). The categories of capital murder were thus drastically cut down by talmudic law: only premeditated murder, at the hands of the accused himself, committed after previous warning by two witnesses (hatra'ah, see *Evidence, *Penal Law), was punishable by death. *Execution was by the sword (Sanh. 9:1). The other, noncapital, categories of homicide – excluding homicides under duress and justification – could still be punished by the death penalty, either at the hands of the king or, in situations of emergency, even by the court (Maim. ibid. 2:4; and see *Extraordinary Remedies); failing this, in the language of Maimonides, "the court would be bound to administer *floggings so grave as to approach the death penalty, to impose *imprisonment on severest conditions for long periods, and to inflict all sorts of pain in order to deter and frighten other criminals" (ibid. 2:5). In this respect, homicide differs from all other capital offenses, for which either the prescribed capital punishment is inflicted or none at all; the reason is that homicide – as distinguished from other grave capital offenses, such as idolatry, incest, or the desecration of the Sabbath – "destroys the civilization of the world" (ibid. 4:9). In exceptional cases of excess of justification, as where the justificatory purpose could have been attained by means short of killing, or where the justificatory purpose allowed by law was exceeded, "He is deemed a shedder of blood and he deserves to be put to death. He may not, however be put to death by the court" (Maim. Yad, Roẓe'aḥ, 1:13). In post-talmudic times, homicides within the Jewish communities were relatively rare, and even the justifiable – including the obligatory – classes of homicide fell into obsolescence. Opinions differed in the various periods and various places as to what the proper punishment was to be: some early scholars held that no murderer should be executed, but only flogged and ostracized (see *Ḥerem; Natronai Gaon, quoted in Tur, Ḥm 425; Or Zaru'a, Hilkhot Tefillah 112; Sha'arei Ẓedek 4:7, 38); others held that murderers should be executed, but not by the sword (Zikhron Yehudah 58; Resp. Ribash 251; Resp. Maharam of Lublin 138; et al.; cf. Ḥokhmat Shelomo, Sanh. 52b. On the law in the State of Israel see *Capital Punishment.


S. Mayer, Die Rechte der Israeliten, Athener und Roemer, 3 (1876), 522–33; S. Mendelsohn, Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews (1891), 58–77; H. Vogelstein, in: mgwj, 48 (1904), 513–53; M. Sulzberger, Ancient Hebrew Law of Homicide (1915); J. Ziegler, in: Festschrift Adolf Schwarz (1917), 75–88; S. Assaf, Ha-On-shin Aḥarei Ḥatimat ha-Talmud (1922), 147 (index), s.v.Roẓe'aḥ; et, 1 (19513), 162–8, 282f.; P. Dickstein (Daykan) Dinei Onshin, 3 (1953), 720–30; J. Ginzberg, Mishpatim le-Yisrael (1956), 378 (index), s.v.Hereg, etc.; M.Z. Neriyah, in: Ha-Torah ve-ha-Medinah, 11–13 (19562), 126–47; D. Daube, Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law (1965). add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:126, 175, 224, 247, 283, 287, 290f., 300f., 423, 434, 435, 500, 569, 808f.; 2:845, 883, 995, 1274; 3:1426; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:142, 194, 253, 287, 334, 340, 344f., 357f.; 2:516, 530, 531, 609, 699, 990f; 3:1033, 1077, 1203, 1521; 4:1699; idem, Jewish Law (Cases and Materials) (1999), 369–388, 638–676; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest), 2 (1986), 342; B. Lifshitz and E. Shochetman, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefat ve-Italyah (legal digest) (1977), 235; Y. Haba, "Mivḥanim li-Keviat Ramat ha-Asham be-Aveirat Reẓah ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri," in: Kiryat ha-Mishpat, 2 (5762), 265–93; A. Warhaftig, "Go'el ha-Dam," in: Tehumin, 11 (5750), 326–60; P. Segel, "Velo Tikḥu Kofer le-Nefesh RoẒe'ahLe-Pasluto shel Heskem le-Pidyon RoẒe'ah," in: Shenaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri, 13 (1987), 215–26.

[Haim Hermann Cohn /

Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 27 2018


The killing of one human being by another human being.

Although the term homicide is sometimes used synonymously with murder, homicide is broader in scope than murder. Murder is a form of criminal homicide; other forms of homicide might not constitute criminal acts. These homicides are regarded as justified or excusable. For example, individuals may, in a necessary act of self-defense, kill a person who threatens them with death or serious injury, or they may be commanded or authorized by law to kill a person who is a member of an enemy force or who has committed a serious crime. Typically, the circumstances surrounding a killing determine whether it is criminal. The intent of the killer usually determines whether a criminal homicide is classified as murder or manslaughter and at what degree.

English courts developed the body of common law on which U.S. jurisdictions initially relied in developing their homicide statutes. Early English common law divided homicide into two broad categories: felonious and non-felonious. Historically, the deliberate and premeditated killing of a person by another person was a felonious homicide and was classified as murder. Non-felonious homicide included justifiable homicide and excusable homicide. Although justifiable homicide was considered a crime, the offender often received a pardon. Excusable homicide was not considered a crime.

Under the early common law, murder was a felony that was punishable by death. It was defined as the unlawful killing of a person with "malice aforethought," which was generally defined as a premeditated intent to kill. As U.S. courts and jurisdictions adopted the English common law and modified the various circumstances that constituted criminal homicide, various degrees of criminal homicide developed. Modern statutes generally divide criminal homicide into two broad categories: murder and manslaughter. Murder is usually further divided into the first degree, which typically involves a premeditated intent to kill, and the second degree, which typically does not involve a premeditated intent to kill. Manslaughter typically involves an unintentional killing that resulted from a person's criminal negligence or reckless disregard for human life.

All homicides require the killing of a living person. In most states, the killing of a viable fetus is generally not considered a homicide unless the fetus is first born alive. In some states, however, this distinction is disregarded and the killing of an unborn viable fetus is classified as homicide. In other states, statutes separately classify the killing of a fetus as the crime of feticide.

Generally, the law requires that the death of the person occur within a year and a day of the fatal injury. This requirement initially reflected a difficulty in determining whether an initial injury led to a person's death, or whether other events or circumstances intervened to cause the person's death. As forensic science has developed and the difficulty in determining cause of death has diminished, many states have modified or abrogated the year-and-a-day rule.

Justifiable or Excusable Homicide

A homicide may be justifiable or excusable by the surrounding circumstances. In such cases, the homicide will not be considered a criminal act. A justifiable homicide is a homicide that is commanded or authorized by law. For instance, soldiers in a time of war may be commanded to kill enemy soldiers. Generally, such killings are considered justifiable homicide unless other circumstances suggest that they were not necessary or that they were not within the scope of the soldiers' duty. In addition, a public official is justified in carrying out a death sentence because the execution is commanded by state or federal law.

A person is authorized to kill another person in self-defense or in the defense of others, but only if the person reasonably believes that the killing is absolutely necessary in order to prevent serious harm or death to himself or herself or to others. If the threatened harm can be avoided with reasonable safety, some states require the person to retreat before using deadly force. Most states do not require retreat if the individual is attacked or threatened in his or her home, place of employment, or place of business. In addition, some states do not require a person to retreat unless that person in some way provoked the threat of harm. Finally, police officers may use deadly force to stop or apprehend a fleeing felon, but only if the suspect is armed or has committed a crime that involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious injury or death. A police officer may not use deadly force to apprehend or stop an individual who has committed, or is committing, a misdemeanor offense. Only certain felonies are considered in determining whether deadly force may be used to apprehend or stop a suspect. For instance, a police officer may not use deadly force to prevent the commission of larceny unless other circumstances threaten him or other persons with imminent serious injury or death.

Excusable homicide is sometimes distinguished from justifiable homicide on the basis that it involves some fault on the part of the person who ultimately uses deadly force. For instance, if a person provokes a fight and subsequently withdraws from it but, out of necessity and in self-defense, ultimately kills the other person, the homicide is sometimes classified as excusable, rather than justifiable. Generally, however, the distinction between justifiable homicide and excusable homicide has largely disappeared, and only the term justifiable homicide is widely used.

Other Defenses

Other legal defenses to a charge of criminal homicide include insanity, necessity, accident, and intoxication. Some of these defenses may provide an absolute defense to a charge of criminal homicide; some will not. For instance, a successful defense of voluntary intoxication generally will allow an individual to avoid prosecution for a premeditated murder, but typically it

will not allow an individual to escape liability for any lesser charges, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. As with any defense to a criminal charge, the accused's mental state will be a critical determinant of whether he or she had the requisite intent or mental capacity to commit a criminal homicide.

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

The killing of oneself is a suicide, not a homicide. If a person kills another person in order to end the other person's pain or suffering, the killing is considered a homicide. It does not matter if the other person is about to die or is terminally ill just prior to being killed; the law generally views such a killing as criminal. Thus, a "mercy killing," or act of euthanasia, is generally considered a criminal homicide.

As medical technology advances and the medical profession is able to prolong life for many terminally ill patients, a person's right to die by committing suicide with the help of a physician or others has become a hotly contested issue. In the 1990s, the issue of physician-assisted suicide came to the forefront of U.S. law. Dr. jack kevorkian, a Michigan physician, helped approximately 130 patients to commit suicide. Michigan authorities prosecuted Kevorkian for murder on a number of occasions, but because aiding, assisting, or causing a suicide is generally considered to be separate from homicide, Kevorkian initially avoided conviction. Finally, in 1999, he was convicted of second-degree murder following the nationally televised broadcast of a videotape showing Kevorkian injecting a lethal drug into a patient. In 2000, the new england journal of medicine revealed a study showing that 75 percent of the 69 Kevorkian-assisted deaths that were investigated were of victims who were not suffering from a potentially fatal disease; five had no discernible disease at all. Instead, it appeared that many of the suicides were the result of depression or psychiatric disorder.

As of early 2003, only one state (Oregon) permitted physician-assisted suicide. However, at that time, similar laws had been introduced in Arizona, Hawaii, and Vermont. U.S. Attorney General john ashcroft sought a declaratory judgment that prescribing federally controlled drugs for the purpose of assisting suicide was not legitimate medical practice. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was expected to render a decision in the matter later that year.

further readings

Chan, Samantha. 2000. "Rates of Assisted Suicides Rise Sharply in Oregon." Student BMJ 11.

Kadish, Sanfor H., ed. 1983. Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. Vol. 2. New York: Free Press.

Lafave, Wayne R., and Austin W. Scott, Jr. 1986. Substantive Criminal Law. Vol. 2. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

"New Revelations About Dr. Death." 2000. Macleans 113.

Torcia, Charles E. 1994. Wharton's Criminal Law. 15th ed. New York: Clark, Boardman, Callaghan.


Death and Dying; Insanity Defense.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Homicide ★★★½ 1991 (R)

Terrific police thriller with as much thought as action; a driven detective faces his submerged Jewish identity while probing an antiSemitic murder and a secret society. Playwright/filmmaker Mamet creates nail-biting suspense and shattering epiphanies without resorting to Hollywood glitz. Rich (often profane) dialogue includes a classic soliloquy mystically comparing a lawman's badge with a Star of David. 100m/C VHS . Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Natalija Nogulich, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Pidgeon; D: David Mamet; W: David Mamet; C: Roger Deakins.


views updated May 21 2018

hom·i·cide / ˈhäməˌsīd; ˈhōmə-/ • n. the deliberate and unlawful killing of one person by another; murder: he was charged with homicide | two thirds of homicides in the county were drug-related. ∎  (Homicide) the police department that deals with such crimes: a detective from Homicide. ∎ dated a murderer.


views updated May 29 2018

homicide1 killer of another human being. XIV. — (O)F. — L. homicīda, f. shortened stem of homō, homin- man + -cīda -CIDE1.
So homicide 2 killing of another human being. XIV. — (O)F. — L. homicīdium. Hence homicidal XVIII.


views updated Jun 11 2018

homicide In law, killing of a person by another. The various legal definitions depend on the circumstances of the killing. A distinction is made between premeditated murder, murder with some mitigating circumstances (such as when the balance of the killer's mind is temporarily disturbed), justifiable homicide (which may sometimes include mercy-killing or the killing of a suspect by a police officer in a shoot-out), and killing by negligence.