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psychology of murder suicide

psychology of murder suicide



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This paper describes how certain individuals lack the nerve to commit suicide so they do it indirectly. Some even are attracted to the death penalty. 20 such cases are described.
See my recent book, Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides
This paper describes how certain individuals lack the nerve to commit suicide so they do it indirectly. Some even are attracted to the death penalty. 20 such cases are described.
See my recent book, Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides

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Published by: katherine stuart van wormer on Mar 17, 2008
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1999. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(4), 361-370. The Psychology of Suicide-Murder and the Death PenaltybyKatherine van Wormer, MSSW, Ph.DProfessor of Social WorkUniversity of Northern IowaCedar Falls, Iowa, U.S.A.andChuk Odiah, M.Sc, Ph.DAssistant Professor of Social WorkUniversity of Northern IowaCorrespondence to be sent toKatherine van Wormer319-273-6379fax 319-273-6976vanwormer@uni.eduThe Psychology of Suicide-Murder and the Death PenaltyABSTRACT. To understand the dynamics of individuals who seek or are attracted tothe death penalty as a form of suicide, we first must probe the dynamics of arelated matter, the so-called murder-suicide syndrome. Following a review of theliterature on murderers who killed themselves shortly after committing murder, asketch of 22 cases of murderers in the U.S. who killed in hopes of gettingthemselves executed, is provided. In recognition of the primacy of suicide insome forms of homicide, the term suicide-murder is used instead of murder-suicide.A paper presented at the World Conference on Violence and the Future of Society,Dublin, Ireland, August 20th-23rd, 1997.This paper focuses on two of the most severe forms of violence -- homicide by anindividual and homicide by the state. The link between these two seeminglydisparate phenomena, at least within the context of this paper, is suicide. Thisarticle will be looking at a peculiar variety of murder, at murder as an extendedform of suicide. That some would willingly inflict harm on others as a way ofensuring their own death, sometimes turning the gun on others in order to get upthe nerve to pull the trigger on themselves, sometimes killing people so that thestate would execute them: this is the case to be made in this paper. Thisphenomenon is referred to here as suicide-murder. Suicide, in other words, willnot be viewed not as the consequence of murder but, rather, as its cause.The barbarity of murder, whether inflicted by the state or by someindividual gone mad is not the subject of this article. Nevertheless, a few wordsabout execution will put it in historic and global context. Execution likeordinary murder can be conceived as an emotion-ridden act that is a rejection oflife and destruction of something sacred. While all of Western Europe and much ofSouth America have abolished this archaic form of punishment, numerous Islamicstates and much of Asia continue to execute people for crimes (Hood, 1996). Inthe United States, over 400 individuals have been executed since the death penaltywas restored in 1976.
Violence breeds violence, a fact borne out in crime statistics. The averagehomicide rate in the twelve states without the death penalty, for example, isconsiderably lower than the average homicide rate in the 38 states where executionis legal. The effect is interactive. A high crime rate leads to a cry forexecution; execution itself may promote further violence. The suggestibilityaspect of violence is poignantly illustrated in the suicide of a twelve year oldItalian boy: Newspaper accounts from the Vatican decried gruesome executions inAmerica (a hanging in Delaware and a firing-squad execution in Utah) thetelevision reports of which incited a sensitive but affectionate child in Noceto,Italy to hang himself. The matter of the violence-inducing aspect of the deathpenalty will be addressed at the end of this article, following an analysis of thesuicide-murder configuration.IntroductionWhen Thomas Hamilton, a thwarted scoutmaster with an obsessive interestin guns and little boys, committed the mass murder of a whole classroom ofchildren in Dunblane, Scotland, the whole world was horrified. Hamilton's lastshot was through his own brain.In the United States, at about the same time, the Cunanan murder spreewhich was launched against successful gay men, filled the air waves. A seeminglyrich, flamboyant homosexual playboy, Andrew Cunanan, craved attention. Tellingly,his high school class had voted him "most likely to be remembered" (Thomas, 1997).Following the climactic killing, the murder of the fashion guru, Gianni Versace,Cunanan hid in a houseboat awaiting his inevitable capture. Upon discovery, heshot himself through the mouth.Both of these cases were world news events. More typical are thesenewspaper headlines: "New York Mother Throws Her Three Children from Roof of 14-Floor Building, then Jumps to Her Death" (Jet, 1996); "Father Who Killed Kids Asksfor Death Penalty" (Associated Press, 1997a); "Relatives Blame Family Troubles forShooting Spree" (Associated Press, 1997b: A2). The description of this lasttragedy is noteworthy: The man accused of killing three people at a bank and oreveryone else to sing the Lord's Prayer with him was upset by family problems andwanted by the police, relatives said. H was very suicidal. He didn't want to killhimself. He wanted someone else to do it for him". The last two sentences areplaced in italics for emphasis: The inability to kill oneself directly is a themetranscending the majority of suicide-murder cases.A review of the literature on multiple murder reveals little systematicresearch despite widespread media interest (Gresswell and Hollin, 1994) and evenless systematic attention to murder as a means of effecting suicide. (See vanWormer, 1997, chapter 11.)For the sake of organization, the material in the literature review tofollow is divided into three key categories. Each category reflects one componentof social work's holistic, biopsychosocial approach to human behavior.The Murder-Suicide: Brief Literary ReviewBiological aspectsDespite the impetus throughout the social and behavioral sciences to considerorganic factors in violent behavior, an extensive Internet search revealed verylittle of substance relating organic factors to murder-suicide. In hiscomprehensive study of self-destructive violence, James Gilligan (1992)hypothesized that testosterone played a role in this form of aggression. Hissubjects were young imprisoned males who were at once suicidal and violent towardothers. Bourgeois (1991), similarly, found a relationship among low levels of
serotonin in the brain, impulsivity, and suicide and/or murder. In a researchstudy more specifically related to murder-suicide, Rosenbaum (1990) discoveredthe murder-suicide perpetrators to be vastly different from perpetrators ofhomicide alone. Whereas murderer-suicides were found to be highly depressed andoverwhelmingly men, other murderers were not generally depressed and more likelyto include women in their ranks.The Psychology of Murder-SuicideIn a retrospective study of homicide-suicides between Australian adultsexual intimates, Easteal (1994) concluded that there were two subtypes of murder-suicide -- elderly partners facing deteriorating health conditions and males whowere estranged from their female partners and pathologically possessive of them.It is the latter category of murder-suicide which is the concern of this article.In Iowa a spate of murder-suicides have occurred over the past few years(Clayworth & Erb, 1998). The significance of the wave of spousal murder-suicidesin Iowa (representing over one-quarter of the total homicide rate for the year) isthat in every case the man did the killing; the killing all seemed to have emergedin conjunction with marital break-up.The theory linking homicide with suicide is not new. Psychoanalytical literature,in fact, has long proposed a link between homicidal and suicidal tendencies.Freud’s extensive work on the unconscious, however flawed, helped students ofpsychology, such as Freud’s granddaughter, to see that “surfaces mirror only oneaspect of human motives, and that each visible aspect of human behavior carrieswithin it, its very opposite” (Freud, S., 1998: 459). A major contribution wasFreud’s notion of the death instinct. This notion is concisely summarized in abook on the social reality of death by Charmaz (1980): In Freud’s view, the deathinstincts exist in conflict with life instincts in a similar way as the asocial idis in conflict with the socially imbued superego. The death instincts then becomemediated by the ego into aggressive acts outside the self.This behavior is construed by Freud as normal behavior. When there is severerepression of natural instincts due to early childhood abuse, however, followingFreudian logic, one may theorize that the death instinct could emerge in a twistedform. Ernest Becker (1973), whose theories on the human notion of death isstrongly psychoanalytical, views the fear of death as a universal phenomenon, afear which is repressed in the unconscious and of which people are largelyunaware. The fear of death, nevertheless, can move individuals toward heroism,but also to scapegoating as well. Failed attempts to achieve heroism, accordingto this view, can lead to mental illness and/or antisocial behavior.The relationship between murder and suicide has been elaborated upon by Menninger(1938). Following Freud’s conceptualization of suicide or self-murder, Menningerargued that suicide involves the wish to kill, to be killed, and to die. Thoseprone to suicide, as Menninger further suggests, are immature individuals fixatedat early stages of development.Suicide by copA second major literature source for the “death wish” comes from lawenforcement journals. The phenomenon of “suicide by cop” has long been writtenabout in the police and forensic journals (Jenet & Segal, 1985). This expression,“suicide by cop,” which is well known to law enforcement officers, refers toindividuals who deliberately try to get the police to kill them. Hostage taking,domestic violence and workplace violence are recognized as the most commonly usedsituations to provoke or lure the police officers into using deadly force (Geller& Scott, 1992). Consequently, the police are being trained today to exercise

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