Men who kill their wives and family are some of the most chilling cases to make headline news and are a phenomenon that seems too incomprehensible to predict, but a new study suggests that these murderers share an overwhelming number of traits that, if recognized, can prompt interventions to prevent these tragedies.
More than one-third of women murdered in the U.S. are killed by male partners. Men are predominantly responsible for family murders, with 80 percent of fatal family violence committed by men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some of these cases involve men overcome with emotion in what are considered unplanned domestic homicides.
Northwestern University researchers focused on the men who committed spontaneous murders of loved ones and found that they have a distinct psychological and forensic profile from those who kill people they do not know.
The study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences looked at 153 male and female killers charged with -- or convicted of -- first-degree murder in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Colorado and Arizona. Through 1,500 hours of interviews, researchers analyzed their demographics, psychiatric history and neurology.
“You learn a lot about them in that amount of time,” lead author Robert Hanlon, director of the forensic psychology research lab at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a news release. “I saw the same patterns and trends over and over again.”
Men involved in spontaneous domestic homicides are more likely to have severe mental illness, few previous felony convictions, lower intelligence and more cognitive impairment than seen in other types of murders, according to the study.
"These murders are in the heat of passion and generally involve drugs or alcohol. And [they] often are driven by jealousy or revenge following a separation or a split," Hanlon said. "This is grabbing the kitchen knife out of the drawer in a fit of anger and stabbing her 42 times."
Frequently, partners and family members have been subjected to violence but do not consider the possibility that their loved one would kill them. Hanlon said consequently, it is especially critical that they contact the authorities if they fear potential harm.
"These crimes are often preventable if family members are more informed about the potential danger from having someone who is severely mentally ill in the home and who may have shown violent tendencies in the past," Hanlon said. "Family members may lull themselves into a state of false beliefs thinking 'My son would never hurt me,' or 'my husband may have a short fuse but he would never seriously harm me.' "