I was reading a popular fiction murder mystery novel recently and one line struck me. After a woman in the book was murdered, the protagonist, a homicide investigator, spoke with his boss about compiling a list of suspects for the woman’s murder. The boss suggested, “Begin with the boyfriend. Who kills women? Men they’re involved with.” I thought about this line, wondering if this was actually true. When a woman is murdered, is the perpetrator usually a man? Is he someone with whom the victim was intimate? When and whom do women kill?
In a 1986 UCLA Law Review article titled Provoked Reason in Men and Women: Heat-of-Passion Manslaughter and Imperfect Self–Defense, Laurie Taylor argues that homicide is a male act and that women rarely kill. She also argues that female and male perpetrated homicides are so different that women and men live in two different “subcultures of violence.” As a result, there is a sex bias in the defenses available in homicide cases and women have difficulty proving legal justifications that reduce murder charges to manslaughter.
Statistics compiled by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics between 1976 and 2005 support Taylor's claim that homicide is highly gendered. First, men commit far more homicides than women in general. For example, men are almost 10 times more likely to commit homicide than women. Second, women are significantly more likely to be the victims of intimate homicide than men. These women were most likely killed by someone with whom they were involved with sexually. Between 1976 and 2002, about one-third of female victims of homicide were killed by an "intimate" (defined as spouses, ex-spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends), whereas only about 3% of male homicide victims were killed by an intimate.
This, however, does not mean that women do not kill. Women more commonly commit infanticide, or the intentional killing of an infant. A 2009 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services found that mothers commit more than 27% of child fatalities, while fathers commit about 15%.
A 2009 study, published in Psychiatry Journal, found that infants killed within 24 hours of their birth are usually killed by their mothers. The study notes that these mothers are rarely mentally ill, but instead have ignored their pregnancies and are in a state of denial. Interestingly, infants over a day old are slightly more likely to be killed by the father. These deaths are usually the result of a parent losing their temper and, without thought, killing the child.
As Taylor’s article points out, what is most interesting is how society punishes female versus male perpetrators. In cases of homicide, women have a more difficult time getting the charges reduced. Taylor argues this is because the requirements of adequate provocation and reasonable response for manslaughter were developed and are applied based on for male violence. Thus, these requirements fail to reflect common patterns of female violence.
The converse is true in the case of infanticide. According to an article in the William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, “mothers who kill their children are likely to be placed in a mental institution or on parole, whereas fathers who commit the same crime are overwhelmingly convicted of homicide and sentenced to prison.”
If we accept the reality that homicide is highly gendered (e.g., men tend to kill their wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends while women tend to kill their babies and children), how should the law respond? Should the defenses available to women be different than those available to men in homicide cases to better reflect male versus female manifestations of violence? It’s not clear what the right answer is, but awareness of the role that gender plays in homicide crimes is surely the first step.