Homicidal Death

Steven A Egger & Kim A Egger. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The history of the United States and the character of its people include a violent component in which the taking of human life has played an important role. Violence was common in the North American continent even before the nation was formed. The systematic destruction of Native American societies by Europeans who settled in the New World reflects the notion that might makes right. The Revolutionary War took a deadly toll on both sides of the conflict. The Civil War provides yet another example of extreme violence and megadeath. The lawlessness of the western frontier and the glorification of gunslingers and mob “justice” are further evidence of the deep roots of violence in the American culture. As the history of the United States has unfolded, this violence, which has often taken the form of murder, has been well documented.

Murder is defined as the taking of the life of one person by another; homicide is a synonym for murder. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (1989) defines homicide as the causing of the death of one human being by another without legal justification or excuse. A broader definition would include the killing of one human being by another through a direct action or an act of omission, regardless of justification. In Western society, criminal statutes divide homicides into killings that are culpable or blameworthy and those that are not culpable; those that fall into the latter category are not considered crimes against the state.

Humans hold a fear of death regardless of their spiritual or religious convictions. Simply put, humans do not desire their lives to end. Thus the idea that someone would take the life of another is anathema to the human mind. Although some analysts of this problem take exception to this orientation, most support this cultural value, arguing that all human life has worth. This would include those analysts who argue that the state should refrain from exacting justice through the taking of life, even in cases of homicide.

The United States has the highest rate of homicide in the Western world even though both the rate and incidence of homicides declined throughout the nation during the final decades of the 20th century. The U.S. homicide rate is high for a number of reasons. Some analysts argue that the high rate of homicide can be attributed to the relative ease of availability of handguns and widespread use of alcohol, whereas others contend that socioeconomic issues and the overall strength of the U.S. economy are partially responsible. Government officials and other social scientists assert that the high rate of homicide can be attributed to the illegal use of controlled substances, such as marijuana and cocaine, and the enormous profits to be gained from the sale of illicit drugs.

In 1966, Wertham argued that the homicide problem could be reduced, but that we need to take a long-range perspective on the problem if we are to have any chance of bringing violence under control. Violence is a part of cultural ideology and the social fabric of U.S. society; it is also an institutional fact. Thus violence is inherent in the structure of Americans’ relationships. As Wertham states:

An equitable socio-economic structure of societies must be the basis for bringing about a universal revulsion against violence. If the individual—all individuals—and society becomes the integrated entity, which they truly are in a fully developed civilization, motives for killing will yield to habits of nonviolence, and nobody will have to be afraid any longer of violent interference with his life and that of his children. (P. 356)

Before we can develop any measure of prevention other than punishment, however, it is clear that we must learn more about violence in general and about how we might bring new insight into the phenomenon of violence to bear on the homicide problem. In the discussion that follows, our focus on the homicide problem is intended to demonstrate both the scope of the problem, including the psychological and sociodemographic characteristics associated with this phenomenon, and the limits of available knowledge.

The Classification of Homicides

In most U.S. jurisdictions, homicides are classified into six categories. The first is first-degree murder, or premeditated murder undertaken with deliberation. To be considered murder in the first degree, the act must have been intended prior to the event’s taking place. In the prosecution of first-degree murder, the state is required to establish legally that the act was intentional and not spontaneous. Second, the state must prove that the act was deliberate—that is, that the act of murder was not impulsive. If the state can demonstrate that planning occurred, even if only momentarily, that is sufficient to establish the second element of first-degree murder.

The second legal category is second-degree murder. Here the state must establish malice aforethought, but without premeditation or deliberation. Malice can be expressed without provocation or it can be implied when murder results from negligence or unthinking behavior on behalf of the perpetrator.

The third homicide category, voluntary manslaughter, occurs when a life is taken without malice. In this instance, the legal distinction is that the act was voluntary but the perpetrator did not intend to kill the victim. One example of voluntary manslaughter is a murder committed in the heat of passion (as in the case of a “love triangle”), without planning or deliberation. It is lack of malice that differentiates voluntary manslaughter from second-degree murder.

Involuntary manslaughter, the fourth category of homicide, is charged when negligent behavior results in a death. A frequently used example of this kind of homicide is an accidental death caused by a driver who was under the influence of either drugs or alcohol.

The fifth legal category, justifiable homicide, is acceptable under the law when one individual kills another in an act of self-defense. In the United States, individuals are considered to be justified in taking the life of another in defense of themselves or their property. Thus justifiable homicide is homicide that is considered unavoidable under the criminal law in specific situations, such as when a person uses force in confronting an armed robber to protect him- or herself, others, or property.

The final category, excusable homicide, is not clearly distinct from the other categories, especially in those jurisdictions where the term justifiable in the context of self-defense is used synonymously with excusable. In legal terms, however, an excusable homicide is a homicide that results from the occurrence of an accident or misfortune during the commission of a lawful act by a person acting without criminal intent and employing usual and ordinary caution (Holmes and Holmes 1994:3).

The Extent of Homicide in the United States

In the year 2000, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, 15,517 officially recorded homicides occurred; the rate per 100,000 was 5.5. This number is virtually unchanged from that recorded in 1999, when 15,522 instances were reported (rate = 5.7). These figures represent a 21% reduction from that recorded during 1996 (n = 19,650; rate = 7.4) and a reduction of 37.2% from that recorded for 1991 (n = 24,700; rate = 9.8). Of the murders recorded during 2000, 44% occurred in the South, the country’s most populous region; 21% occurred in the Midwest, 21% in the West, and almost 14% in the Northeast. The South and Northeast each recorded a 2.4% increase. The West recorded a decrease of 3.4%, and the Midwest experienced a decrease of 2.9%. Homicides occurred most frequently during the month of July and least often in the month of February (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1992, 1997, 2001).

The national murder rate per 100,000 in the year 2000 (5.5) represents a decrease of 25.6% from that recorded during 1996; it is 43.7% lower than that for 1991. The year 2000 murder rate in U.S. metropolitan areas was 5.9 murders per 100,000 population. For that same year, the murder rate for both rural counties and cities located outside metropolitan areas was 3.8 per 100,000 (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1992, 1997, 2001).

Table 1 displays the numbers and rates of homicides in the United States for the years 1991 to 2000. As the table shows, there was a 37% decrease in the number of homicides and a 44% decrease in the rate of homicide over this period. For 12,943 of the 15,517 murders reported during the year 2000, local U.S. law enforcement agencies have provided information on the age, sex, and race of both victims and offenders, the types of weapons used, the relationships of victims to offenders, and the circumstances surrounding the murders. According to these data, 76.2% of homicide victims were male. The greatest proportion (89.7%) of victims were age 18 and over, with approximately 45% of the victims 20 to 34 years of age. Where race is known, 49% of the victims were white and 48.5% were black, with all other races accounting for the remaining 2.5%.

Homicidal Death

Table 1

The data relating to offenders indicate that in the year 2000, 14,697 offenders, or 90.2% of the offenders for whom information is known, were male. Of these, 91.3% were age 18 and over. Of all offenders, 69.1% were ages 17 through 34; 51.4% were black, 46.1% were white, and the remainder were persons of other races. The data also reveal that murder tends to be intraracial: Black offenders killed 93.7% of black murder victims and white offenders killed 86.2% of white victims. In addition, males were most often the offenders against both other males (88.5%) and females (90.8%) (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2001).People use a number of weapons to kill one another. The most frequently used weapon of homicide in the United States in the year 2000 was a firearm, representing 65.6% of the total. Handguns specifically were used in 51.2% of cases, and other firearms were employed in 14.2%. Knives or other cutting weapons were used in 13.5% of the murders; personal weapons, such as hands, feet, or fists, were used in 7%; blunt objects, such as hammers and clubs, were used in 4.7%; and other dangerous weapons, such as explosives or poisons, were used in the remainder of the cases (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2001). Table 2 presents a breakdown of the weapons used in homicides in the United States over the same 10-year period shown in Table 1; the data indicate that very little has changed over time.
Homicidal Death

Table 2

Data on murders in the year 2000 show that in about 44% of the cases the victims knew the perpetrators, and 13.4% of perpetrators were related to their victims by family ties. Of all female victims, the proportion killed by husbands or boyfriends was 33%; of all male victims, 3.2% were killed by wives or girlfriends. Victims were killed by strangers in 13% of the murders, and in 42.6% of the murders the relationships between the victims and their killers were not known. As to the circumstances of the killings, 29.4% were attributed to arguments and 16.7% were committed in conjunction with other felonious acts.U.S. law enforcement agencies have been less than effective in solving homicides over the past 25 years. The rate of clearance (the proportion of homicide cases solved) was 79% in 1976, and by the year 2000 the clearance rate had declined to 63.1%. This decline in clearance rates may be a result of the increases in stranger-to-stranger homicides, drive-by shootings, and gang-related and drug-related killings recorded in recent years.Persons under 18 years of age were responsible for 5.3% of the murders that were cleared during the year 2000, representing the lowest proportion of juvenile involvement in major crimes. Of the 13,227 arrests for murder made during 2000, 51.3% of those arrested were under 25 years of age; the age group 18 to 24 accounts for 42% of the arrest total. Almost 90% of those arrested were males. Blacks accounted for 48.8% of murder arrests and whites accounted for 48.7%, with other races making up the remainder. The number of arrests for murder in 2000 was 24.2% below the number recorded for 1996 and 41.3% below that recorded for 1991.

Motives for Homicide

Some analysts of the homicide problem argue that one should consider victim precipitation when attempting to establish motive for murder. In some cases, determining how the victim’s actions or situation contributed to his or her demise may prove useful, but this information can provide only a partial explanation for the homicide—that is, unless self-defense is involved.

The Root Causation of Violent Behavior

Many researchers have addressed the causes of crime by identifiable motives in numerous research monographs and journal articles. Beginning with the classical and neoclassical philosophical writers, many individuals have brought important insights to bear on this topic. Among the earliest of these analysts were Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, both of whom offer important insights, arguing that people act rationally and exercise free will in choosing to commit crimes.

In the scientific arena, biologists have long explored the roots of violent behavior in the search for physical explanations. One early pioneer in this area was Cesare Lombroso, who, in the late 1800s, developed ideas relating to the concept of the biological, or “born,” criminal. Although these early ideas quickly lost support, a great deal of the scientific literature addresses the problem of criminal behavior from psychological, psychiatric, and sociological points of view, with each discipline approaching the problem from a different level of analysis. Researchers working from each of these perspectives have attempted to offer explanations from criminal behavior that focus on different aspects of life experiences and social processes.

Although establishing the motives that lie behind the behavior that leads to homicide is not yet an exact science, one way to advance that understanding is to examine different types of homicide as these are currently known to relate to the factor of motive. The FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (Douglas et al. 1992), or CCM, lists four categories of homicide: personal cause homicide, criminal enterprise homicide, sexual homicide, and group cause homicide. We discuss the dynamics involved in homicides in each of these categories in turn below.

Personal Cause Homicide

According to the CCM, personal cause homicide is one the most common forms of murder committed worldwide (Douglas et al. 1992). Defined as murders committed as the result of emotional conflicts, personal cause homicides can be divided into several subtypes. One of these is erotomania homicide, in which the perpetrator holds a fantasy about a public figure and stalks that person before killing him or her. An example is the case of Mark Chapman, who shot former Beatle John Lennon in front of the New York City apartment building in which Lennon lived. After the murder, it was discovered that Chapman had built a rich fantasy life around John Lennon, imitating him and at times even believing that he was Lennon. Chapman’s delusions led him to kill Lennon because Lennon’s existence threatened Chapman’s fantasy life (Douglas et al. 1992). We discuss several other subtypes of personal cause homicide briefly below.

Domestic Homicide

In domestic homicide, the victim and the offender are members of the same family or household, including extended the family. The murder of a wife or girlfriend by her husband or boyfriend is an example of this type of homicide. Such a death may result from an escalation of an ongoing situation of domestic abuse or battering, or may take place suddenly when the offender becomes angry with the victim for not performing an activity to the offender’s satisfaction, or may occur when the offender attempts to stop the victim from leaving the relationship. During the 1970s, many states passed new domestic violence laws in reaction to data on the numbers of women who had been killed when they attempted to leave their abusive husbands.

Child abuse resulting in the death of the child is yet another example of domestic homicide. Poverty and parental job loss, marital problems, and mental illness are thought to be contributing factors in the death of hundreds of children each year. According to a vast amount of evidence compiled by researchers in mental health and related fields, child abuse is one of the leading causes of infant and adolescent death in the United States; approximately 2,000 children die annually across the nation as the result of abuse (“Abuse a Leading Cause” 1995). Deaths stemming from the abuse of elderly family members are also included in this category, although few data are available on such homicides.

Argument/Conflict Homicide

Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between the use of alcohol and other drugs and domestic homicide. Alcohol and the presence of handguns is often a lethal combination, and both factors play major roles in argument/conflict homicide. In one study, Goldstein (1995) found that alcohol use was related to at least onehalf of recorded homicides. When alcohol or other drugs and guns are present, an argument between acquaintances, or even between strangers, may quickly escalate into a violent confrontation. When combined with anger, interpersonal conflict may lead to the death of one or more of the parties to the conflict. In the year 2000, more than onefourth of all homicides in the United States resulted from arguments. Other examples of argument/conflict homicides are killings stemming from road rage incidents, bar fights, neighborhood disagreements, and arguments over money or property.

Authority Homicide

Authority homicide is the murder of an individual in a position of authority over the killer. Cases in which individuals murder their former bosses are representative of this category of homicide. This type of crime may also escalate into mass murder, as when perpetrators kill innocent bystanders as well as their authority targets. The murders of political and religious figures also fall within this category of homicide. For example, the assassination of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood in September 2001 by the followers of Osama bin Laden may be understood as an authority homicide. Masood’s enemies considered his death to be essential because he represented a threat to the goals of the Taliban and bin Laden, and he was a central figure in efforts to unite forces against the Taliban.

Revenge Homicide

Revenge homicide is the killing of a person in retaliation for real, imagined, or perceived wrongs the victim committed against the killer or against some other person the killer deems to be important. The victim of a revenge homicide may not have been aware of the situation that led to his or her death, but investigators may be able to discover a link between the killer and the victim and thus establish what triggered the killing. For example, an individual who is convicted of a crime may fixate on a court witness against him and vow revenge against that person, although the witness may never know of this vow.

Nonspecific Homicide

Homicides that are classified as nonspecific are perhaps the most difficult types of murders to comprehend. They do not fall into any of the other categories because they seem senseless—they have no apparent motive. Victims of such homicides often appear to be chosen at random; they may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some homicides are classified as nonspecific because the killers have committed suicide or been killed by the police, so all questions about motive remain unanswered.

Extremist Homicide

Extremist homicide is murder committed because of the killer’s ideological, political, religious, or socioeconomic beliefs. Although individuals commit homicide for such reasons, the ideologically oriented groups with which they are affiliated may not sanction murder as a legitimate means of promoting social change. One example of a perpetrator of extremist homicide is Joseph Paul Franklin, who targeted mixed-race couples across the United States in the late 1970s. Most of Franklin’s gunshot victims were African American males; his white victims were all females. When Franklin was caught in September 1980, it was discovered that he had a history of associating with the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, both extremist groups that advocate the murder of nonwhites. In contrast are the extremist homicides perpetrated by individuals whose religious views lead them to bomb abortion clinics and murder persons who assist in performing abortions. Although some of these individuals might consider themselves to be affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which is opposed to abortion, the Church does not advocate the murder of those who engage in this procedure.

Mercy and Hero Homicides

This category encompasses two related kinds of homicide. Hero homicides are murders committed by individuals who place their victims in life-threatening situations in order to “rescue” them; when a rescue fails, a homicide is the result. In mercy homicide, the killer’s intent is to release the victim from a terminal condition that is painful or degrading. Such murders are often described as tragic because the victims are usually terminally ill persons and their killers are either family members or intimate friends. In these cases, the victims’ suffering or fear of the late-stage disease process serves as the catalyst for killing. Other persons may also be involved in this type of so-called murder. For example, the former medical pathologist Jack Kevorkian assisted many terminally ill persons in fulfilling their wishes to die, although at Kevorkian’s criminal trial, he indicated in his testimony that he medicated these patients to relieve their suffering, not to kill.

Newspapers frequently carry stories about health care workers who have been responsible for the deaths of patients. In cases of hero homicide, the killers are usually health care workers who have histories of saving patients through their heroic actions when patients suddenly go into respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Eventually, investigations of patient deaths may reveal patterns that revolve around particular shifts and eventually around specific workers, but such killings may continue for many years before any patterns are uncovered. Victims of hero homicide are frequently the elderly, the critically ill, and the very young—that is, the most vulnerable patients. When health care workers are detected as the perpetrators of hero homicide, they are often labeled either as serial killers or as “angels of death.” Individuals commit this kind of murder because of their need for recognition and excitement. Examples of such killers are two nurses, Genene Jones of Texas and Lynn Majors of Indiana, who apparently began killing their patients in their attempts to establish themselves as medical heroes.

Criminal Enterprise Homicide

Criminal enterprise homicide, the second major category of homicide, is defined as murder committed for material gain, to secure territory, or to exchange favors. Murders committed as part of organized criminal activity and murders for hire are examples of this kind of criminal activity. Murders that result from kidnapping and product tampering are also included in this general category, as are murders carried out for profit from insurance benefits, inheritance, or other monetary gain.

Felony murder, defined as any death that occurs during the commission of another violent crime, also falls within the category of criminal enterprise homicide. Also included are cases in which a person has knowledge that someone is going to be killed but does not inform the potential victim or the authorities, as are witnesses to this kind of crime. Criminal enterprise homicides also include deaths that result from drug deals, gang violence, and the hiring of someone to murder and dispose of another.

Sexual Homicide

Sexual homicides are those murders that include a sexual component in the sequence of events leading to the victims’ deaths. The sexual meanings and elements involved may be unique to the offender, and the sexual activity may occur before, during, or after the murder. Such activity may be actual sexual activity or symbolic sexual activity, such as the insertion of objects into the victim’s body. Many serial murders fall into this category. Homicides involving children who fall prey to pedophilic killers and women who are murdered during the act of rape are included in the sexual homicide category.

When sexual homicide perpetrators have more than one victim, they are categorized as serial murderers. Some sexual predators have been described as charming and convincing in their relationships with others; some target particular victims only because they fit the killers’ preferred types (this was the case with Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, for example). Although the serial killer’s sexual gratification represents the primary motive, the brutality of the attack is also important. The victim of a sexually motivated serial killer is culpable only in that he or she entered the area where the killer operates; the reason behind the victim’s death is the killer’s fantasy-driven homicidal desire.

Sadistic homicide, a form of sexual homicide, involves bondage, torture, and humiliation, all aimed at fulfilling the killer’s personal sexual desires. The sexually sadistic murderer is gratified in a sexual way by the victim’s response to torture. The sadistic killer’s appetite for bondage as part of the sex act escalates over time, ultimately resulting in murder. Sadistic killers are usually intelligent white males who methodically target and stalk their victims. After abducting a victim, the sadistic killer prolongs the torture as long as possible before murdering the victim in a particular way that is tied to sexual fantasy. Serial killers do not always work alone; for example, in 1979, Roy Norris and Lawrence Bittaker, former prison inmates who shared a common interest in the torture and rape of teenage girls, together abducted and killed at least five girls in California.

Sadistic killers are not always roaming strangers, nor is the sexual component of their crimes always obvious. Michael Swango, a doctor, poisoned some of his patients in order to watch them suffer. After numerous close calls, including a brief stint in jail for poisoning his coworkers, he was arrested and convicted of murder; he is currently imprisoned in New York State. Another case involving a sadistic killer recently came to light in Manchester, England, where Harold Shipman, a trusted family physician, is believed to have murdered more than 200 of his patients over a number of years (he has been convicted of killing 15). Many have speculated about the reasons Shipman committed the murders, and some have theorized that Shipman was addicted to watching his patients die of drug overdoses. However, psychological sadism seems to be the most likely reason Shipman killed. In the final analysis, both Swango and Shipman may have relished the power of life and death they held over their patients.

Group Cause Homicide

Group cause homicide is murder committed by two or more individuals as a result of their shared ideology or belief system. In group cause homicide, the group defines the motives for the deaths of victims. Murders committed by members of cults, paramilitary groups, and other extremists on behalf of their groups fall within this category. Cultist group homicide is exemplified by the Manson murders of the 1960s. The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 by a group of Islamic extremists also can be categorized as a group cause homicide, as can the murders committed in 1995 by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and his coconspirators.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and Pentagon are also cases of group cause homicide. Unlike some cases in the category of extremist homicide, described above, in group cause homicide, the group with which the killers are associated always supports the murders that are committed on its behalf. The primary goal that groups have in carrying out actions such as the September 11 attacks is to inflict as much death and destruction as possible in order to terrorize. The victims are completely random and are unaware of the immanent threat.

Every murder is committed for a particular reason. The reason may be a bizarre fantasy in the killer’s mind, or it may be as simple as one or more of the four Ls: love, lust, lucre, and loathing. Many victims of homicide meet their ends at the hands of persons known to them, but among the victims killed by strangers, the most vulnerable are those who exist on the periphery of society. Steven A. Egger (2002) refers to these individuals as the “less-dead,” the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, the elderly, runaways, and hitchhikers. When such devalued individuals die, their absence is less likely to be noticed; when they are murdered, their deaths are less vigorously investigated.

Methods of Homicide

In the year 2000, 15,517 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters in the United States were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which issues annual reports on crime statistics. In many of these cases, the methods by which the murders were carried out have been determined, but in many others the methods are less clear or were never unreported. In this section, we focus on the ways in which people kill one another.

Homicides are most often committed with guns, especially handguns. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 6,686 homicides were committed with handguns; this amounts to a little over 43% of the total. Long guns—that is, rifles and shotguns—are used far less often in homicides than are handguns. The .30-06, the rifle used most commonly for hunting, is easily available to those who choose to use this type of weapon to commit murder. In 2000, the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified 864 homicides in which a rifle or shotgun was used.

Cutting and sharp, pointed instruments such as knives, ice picks, machetes, and axes are often used in murders. Knives, which range widely in sizes and styles, are the most commonly used among these instruments. Inner-city juveniles often carry switchblade knives and may, on occasion, use them in committing murders. Striking instruments such as tire irons, bats, batons, and golf club are also sometimes used in homicides.

Sometimes killers use their hands to strangle their victims, crushing the trachea and blocking oxygen to the mouth and nose. In some cases such killers may want their victims to suffer, and so cause the victims to move in and out of consciousness by applying differing amounts of pressure to their necks (this is reportedly a “technique” favored by serial killers, who frequently strangle their victims). In other cases, such as when a killing occurs in the heat of passion, strangled victims die in a short period of time. Murderers may kill with their hands in other ways as well; for example, they may physically beat their victims to death. Sometimes killers use their feet, kicking their victims and causing them to die as a result of blunt force trauma.


Arson, which is frequently committed for profit or revenge, is also often used to conceal the fact that a homicide has occurred. Fire marshals estimate that more than 1,000 lives are lost each year in the United States due to arson fires. Arsonists use a variety of materials, including incendiary devices, gasoline, and kerosene. Arsonists may also be considered terrorists with extremist motivation. When people die as the result of an act of arson, it is considered murder.

Other Methods

Murderers who use poison generally do so by placing the poison in their victims’ food or by tampering with over-the-counter drugs. Many liquid poisons are slow acting and thereby cause prolonged agony when ingested. Numerous substances, some well-known and some rare, are poisonous to humans; such substances may take the form of liquid, gas, or powder. Some of the better-known poisons include lye, carbon monoxide, various acids, copper sulfate, cyanide, and arsenic. Poisoning is used in murders relatively infrequently today, probably because, with advances in toxicology and laboratory techniques, most poisons are much more easily detected than they were in the past.

Causing a victim to asphyxiate, perhaps by inhaling an airborne chemical, a deadly gas, or an airborne pathogen, is an effective method of committing murder. Murderers have been known to use carbon monoxide to kill in this way and then stage the murder scenes to look as though the victims committed suicide.

Ligature asphyxiation is another method of homicide. The ligatures most often used are of two main types: The first is rope, and the second is some other form of elongated material, such as wire, rope, or a piece of cloth (often, in sexual murders, the piece of cloth is from the victim’s underclothing). Hanging is not often a method of homicide, but the use of an elongated ligature to strangle is common.

The injection of a lethal drug directly into the victim’s bloodstream is yet another method of homicide. In many instances, killers who work in medical establishments use this method, either in their workplaces or elsewhere. For example, Harold Shipman, the English doctor mentioned above, made house calls to his patient victims, injecting them with lethal doses of morphine and diamorphine in their own homes.

Some killers use force to drown their victims. A recent case of murder by drowning that received a great deal of attention was that of Andrea Yates, who, in June 2001, drowned her five children, four boys and a girl ages 6 months to 7 years. At her trial, the defense claimed that Yates was suffering from postpartum depression and thus was insane at the time of the killings, but the Texas jury thought otherwise, finding her guilty of murder and sentencing her to life imprisonment.

Mechanical and chemical explosive devices are also sometimes used to kill. One commonly used kind of device causes an explosion through the burning of combustible fuels such as natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, gasoline, kerosene, and lubricating oils. The bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed 167 people in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in April 1995 was such a device. On September 11, 2001, commercial aircraft were turned into bombs in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia. Approximately 3,000 lives were lost in this act of mass homicide.

The examples we have presented above demonstrate the capacity for innovation of those who are intent on taking the lives of others. In the future we will undoubtedly witness even more creative ways to kill.


In this chapter, we have discussed conceptual categories of killing as well as many of the methods used to take human life. Although the analysis of conceptual categories is useful for advancing our understanding of homicidal behavior, knowledge concerning specific motives for such behavior remains more elusive. We still do not fully understand why some murderers target strangers, as in the case of serial murder. It is also difficult to understand how the killing of loved ones evolves, as it were, from emotional arguments. Yet domestic homicides are frequent occurrences, as are the deaths of individuals who become involved in confrontations with strangers (as in cases of so-called road rage).

The history of the United States is written in the blood of those who have died at the hands of many different types of killers. Although the reasons for homicide change over time, the United States continues to experience the highest rate of homicide in the Western world. With the evolution of culture, the human species has excelled at devising improved methods of killing. As science and technology advance, murderers will continue to create new techniques for killing. Such progress does not seem to change.

When one human takes the life of another, not only is the victim’s being obliterated, but the existence of future generations is denied. More than 2000 years ago, it was said of murder that to take a single life is to kill an entire world; that is, not only does the victim cease to exist, but his or her possible descendants are denied existence as well. In Western culture we often appear to be inured to violence, but death by homicide is very real to the victim’s survivors. Murder has direct effects on the victim’s loved ones, friends, and coworkers, who must come to terms with the fact that the victim is gone forever.