Why Do They Kill?: Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners

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Moving backwards from the murders they committed through their adult lives, relationship histories, and their childhoods, the author sought to understand what motivates the men to kill. The patterns he found reveal that the murders were neither impulsive crimes of passion nor were they indiscriminate. Why Do They Kill? is the first book to profile different types of wife killers, and to examine the courtship patterns of abusive men. The author shows that wife murders are not, for the most part, "crimes of passion," but culminations of lifelong predisposing factors of the men who murder, and that many elements of their crimes are foretold by their past behavior in intimate relationships.

Key turning points of these relationships include the first emergence of the man's violence, his blaming of the victim, her attempts to resist, his escalation, her attempts to end the relationship, and his punishment for her defiance. Critical perspective on the men's accounts comes from interviews with victims of attempted homicide (standing in for the murder victims) who survived shootings, stabbings, and strangulation. These women detail their partner's escalating patterns of child abuse, sexual violence, terroristic threats, and stalking. The section on help-seeking patterns of victims helps to dispel notions of learned helplessness among victims.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

From this work we can improve our threat assessment and offer better information for victims.
--Deborah D. Tucker, Executive Director, National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence

David Adams's interviews with 31 men who killed intimate female partners break new ground in the study of domestic violence and homicide. . . . The killings emerge as neither random, nor spontaneous. Rather, these tragedies are steeped in a complex mélange of biography, social forces, and the immediacies and practicalities of human violence. A compelling read.
--Neil Websdale, author of Understanding Domestic Homicide

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826515681
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David Adams, a licensed psychologist, is co-founder and co-director of Emerge, established in 1977, the first counseling program in the nation for men who abused women. He has conducted trainings for social service and criminal justice professionals in 38 states and ten countries. Adams is Director of the National Domestic Violence Danger Assessment Training Project.
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Read an Excerpt

Why Do They Kill?

Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners

By David Adams

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-9231-6


Men Who Kill Their Partners


This book is the culmination of over ten years of work investigating the murders of women by their intimate partners. In 1993, Governor William Weld declared a state of emergency for women in Massachusetts in response to the murders of twenty-eight women and six children at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. Even People magazine took notice, issuing a cover story titled "The Plague Strikes Home" in response to a spate of five wife killings in the town of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Judging by newspaper accounts of these killings, most of the killers had previously battered their victims. Media accounts of the killers pointed to a variety of motives. Some seemed to fit with O. J. Simpson's alleged motive for killing, that of a jealous husband or boyfriend. John Diaz, for example, mistakenly shot and killed Dawn Brown, the look-alike sister of his estranged girlfriend, Kimberly Brown, whom he had intended to kill. Apparently, Mr. Diaz believed Ms. Brown had left him for another man. James St. Cyr was another man who reportedly killed in a jealous rage. Mr. St. Cyr broke into the apartment of his estranged girlfriend, Tara Hartnett, who was a college senior and young mother. After stabbing her to death, Mr. St. Cyr set the apartment ablaze in an attempt to cover up his crime. Other killers appeared to have a clear history of alcohol or drug abuse, and judging from the media accounts, some of these deaths were unplanned and even accidental. There were also those who killed themselves as well as their partners. The portraits that emerged from these killings seemed to fit those of suicidal depression and mental illness. In some cases, though, very little was known about the prior histories of the killers and their victims. For the most part, friends and neighbors said they were shocked and had no clue about what motivated the fatal attack.

As someone who has counseled men who batter for nearly thirty years, I also wondered what, if anything, was unique about these cases. Are abusers who kill more violent, or more jealous, or more suicidal, or just plain crazier than those who don't kill? What could have deterred these men? Despite the sensationalistic headlines and media coverage, very little was really known about wife killings. A few studies had tried to make sense of these situations by interviewing friends and relatives of the murdered women. But even these studies left out the two most important sources of information: the victim and the perpetrator. This is the first study in the United States that sought to gain information directly from men who killed their partners. In seeking to interview killers, I never expected them to provide completely honest accounts, just as I knew from my work with batterers that the picture they paint is often skewed. In fact, I knew much of what the killers would say would be self-serving. They still had much to hide, and even more to justify or excuse. I knew that the best sources of information were dead. While it was impossible to talk to the deceased, we decided to do the next best thing: interview women who came closest to being killed, victims of attempted homicide. This study included in-depth interviews with twenty victims of attempted homicide and nineteen additional women who were victims of potentially life-threatening assaults. These subjects were recruited through district attorney offices in Massachusetts and from battered women's programs. By seeking information from both killers and victims of serious assaults, we sought to increase the understanding about what leads to women's murders by men.

"Is He Going to Kill Me?"

For the first time in a long time, Elizabeth Wilson felt she had something to look forward to as she drove home from her sister's house one late November evening. She was returning from an annual tradition for the Wilson family: dinner following the last hockey game before Christmas. It had felt so good to be where she was so accepted and could just be herself. She had four days off from her job as an office manager. Most of all, she felt relieved not to have encountered her estranged husband, Mark. She realized that Mark was likely aware of her whereabouts that evening because he'd seemed to make it his business to know where she was at all times since she'd filed for divorce in September.

This was their first Christmas apart after four years of marriage and she guessed that he might be ruminating about this, and probably drinking too, this being a Thursday night. It was now nearly midnight and she was almost home free. Maybe he'd been too drunk or high to remember her annual family tradition. It was somewhat a relief to know that he was without a car. Just a month earlier, he'd tried to force her car off the road when she had been on her way home after an evening out with friends. She found out later that Mark had been waiting and watching for her outside her friend's house, though she didn't know how he'd known she was there. It could have been a lucky guess or he might have tailed her after she'd left work. Elizabeth had obtained a restraining order after Mark had repeatedly shown up at her work to try to talk to her, or just to scream at her. He'd told her that he'd ruin everything for her. The last time she'd seen him, she had been frightened to see how his appearance had deteriorated. He'd lost weight and his color was pale. He'd grown a beard and his hair was long and unkempt. She'd heard from a friend that Mark was smoking crack, something he'd never done while they were living together. She'd also heard that he'd stopped showing up for his job as a mechanic and had been fired. She also knew that he had cashed out his retirement account. It frightened her to see him going downhill so fast and she was worried for her safety, especially after he'd started making threats to kill himself.

Elizabeth was less than a mile home when a white car pulled up to hers along a suburban stretch of highway. Almost instantaneously she recognized the other driver to be Mark. Just as she'd imagined in so many bad dreams, he was pointing a gun out his window and motioning for her to pull over. She sped up just as he fired, and two bullets struck the rear driver's side window, just behind her head. Seconds later, he again pulled up to her car and fired two more shots. Both bullets hit her driver's side door this time. In a blind terror, Elizabeth headed toward the police station that was less than a mile away. Tailing her closely, Mark fired three more shots into her car, missing each time. Not deterred when Elizabeth pulled into the police station lot, Mark pulled alongside her car, pointed his gun, and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed and he sped off into the night.

Mark was later arrested at his home and held without bail. He was ultimately convicted of assault with intent to commit homicide, illegal possession of a firearm, and violation of a restraining order, for which he received a prison sentence of eight years.

Elizabeth was lucky on a number of counts, not the least of which was escaping serious injury or death after having seven shots fired at her. Prosecutors say that convictions for assault with intent to commit murder are not always easy to try for, since there must be evidence "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that the assailant intended to kill the victim. Since intent is often unknowable, juries are hesitant to assume the worst about a person's motivations. For this reason, many potential cases of assault with intent to commit homicide, particularly those involving strangulation, stabbing, and bludgeoning, are often pled down to lesser charges such as assault with a dangerous weapon, aggravated assault, or even simple assault and battery. Even cases of shooting must contain irrefutable evidence that the person intended to kill and not merely to maim or to scare the victim. In Mark's case, his heavy use of alcohol on that December evening might have helped convince the jury that he might well have succeeded in killing Elizabeth had he not been so impaired. His past suicide threats, quitting of his job, and cashing out of his retirement plan also helped paint a picture of someone who'd decided he had little to live for. Elizabeth had been right to be fearful about Mark's potential to kill not just himself but her as well. Annually, about 30% of the 1,300 killings of women by their intimate partners in the United States are murder-suicides. A sizable proportion of the other murders are preceded by suicide threats or attempts by the killers.

As will be discussed later, there are different motivations for the perpetrators. In some cases, it appears that their primary aim was to kill their partners and then to choose death over life without their partner and/or life in prison. In contrast, some of the men I interviewed said that they had intended to kill themselves but lacked the courage to do so. At the last minute, they changed targets from themselves to their partners.

Intimate Partner Homicides

Approximately 1,800 adults are killed by their intimate partners annually in the United States. This current rate of killings is a decrease of 40% from 1970-2000, when there had been about 3,000 intimate partner homicides per year. Paradoxically, however, the number of male victims has decreased dramatically during this period, from 1,400 to 500, while killings of women have only moderately decreased, from 1,600 to 1,300. Over twenty-five years, the proportion of female victims relative to male has actually increased from just over half in 1976 to over 70%. This is surprising given the widespread increases in legal protections and services available for battered women. Some researchers have speculated that men have been the primarily beneficiaries of enhanced protections for abused women since more choices are now available to those who in the past might have killed their abusers. It has long been known that battered women commit a sizable proportion of husband killings. According to a study by Angela Browne of battered women who kill, these women are often subjected to more serious and frequent physical abuse than other battered women. While some of these killings were in self-defense, many others were acts of desperation committed by women who perceived no other means of escape from tortuous and life-threatening relationships.

Research by Brown and others has helped to expand previous notions of self-defense beyond the narrow legal definitions that still exist in many states. These generally require that a person be in imminent danger from his or her attacker and that the actions taken in self-defense use the least force necessary to protect oneself from harm or death. Legal advocates for battered women have argued, sometimes successfully, that these narrow definitions work against women who are usually less able to defend themselves physically than men. They argue that a man who is being beaten by his female partner is usually better able to defend himself physically without using a weapon. Given the disparities in size and strength between men and women, however, the minimal and safest defensive action available to a woman being attacked by her husband may be to shoot him.

Self-defense laws also specify that a person's first duty is to retreat in face of an attack, and that all retreating actions should be exhausted prior to using physical force. Advocates and researchers have pointed out that this action is not always the safest recourse for battered women. In fact, many studies have shown that battered women are most likely to be killed when attempting to flee their abusers or to end their relationships.

Assessing Danger

Even though increased numbers of battered women have left their abusers without being killed or otherwise harmed, leaving is still a major risk for women who are subjected to the most dangerous abusers. Undoubtedly, many of these women do not leave because they know the risk is too great. Often, their abusers have repeatedly told them, "If you leave me, I'll find you and kill you," or "If I can't have you, nobody else can." Investigations of femicides often find a history of threats backed up with prior acts of serious violence or attempts to kill the victim or others to whom she turned for help.

One relatively new tool of law enforcement in helping to prevent killings of battered women has been threat assessments, sometimes known as lethality assessments. These typically consist of checklists of risk factors that have been shown to increase the odds for serious assaults or violence. Such factors include prior threats of homicide or suicide by the abusers, past use of weapons to scare or to injure the victims, past acts of strangulation or other serious violence, drug or alcohol abuse, estrangement, stalking behavior, and extreme jealousy. Ideally, threat assessments that reveal high risk are followed by safety planning with the victims that is conducted by trained victim advocates. In some jurisdictions, findings of high risk also trigger increased monitoring of the perpetrators by members of law enforcement. Such monitoring might take the form of high bail or incarceration, home confinement, a requirement of frequent visits with their probation officers, drug and alcohol screenings, assignment to certified batterer intervention programs, and monthly case reviews before a judge.

Several problems have been identified with the use of threat assessments. One is that these tend to over-predict homicide since there is a high rate of so-called false positives. A false positive occurs when a particular risk factor is present but the predicted outcome does not occur. Relative to the incidence of domestic violence cases—even including those that have elements of high risk—femicide is still a very rare event. According to the FBI's National Crime Victimization Survey, American women experienced 588,000–1,100,000 crimes of domestic violence annually between 1993–2001. Even by these conservative figures, the proportion of women killed relative to those who are battered is one-tenth of one percent.

Given that certain risk factors (such as threats to kill) far exceed the number of killings, it is difficult to know which particular cases most warrant the extra resources. One solution would be to provide enhanced monitoring of all perpetrators who have been found to pose serious risk. This may not be practical for some jurisdictions, however, given the large numbers and the resources involved. This solution also leads to another problem with lethality assessments—that of false negatives. A false negative occurs when the feared outcome (e.g., homicide) was not preceded by any or most of the risk factors. Some men kill their partners without having previously threatened them or themselves, for instance. Many killers lack a criminal record or a history of abusing alcohol or drugs. Threat assessments may lead law enforcement and other agencies to focus solely on those cases where the assessed danger score is high and to ignore those cases where it is low.

A related problem in conducting threat assessments is that relevant information may not be available to those doing the assessment. For example, most perpetrators of domestic violence minimize the seriousness and frequency of their past violence for fear of criminal sanctions. Victims, for a variety of reasons, may also minimize or fail to disclose certain risk factors. They may fear retribution should such information be revealed to their perpetrators. Reinforcing this fear, information obtained from a victim for a dangerousness assessment may be discoverable by the defendant's attorney. Because of this, many jurisdictions advise victims about the limits to their confidentiality prior to interviewing them about the violence. Some jurisdictions provide only summary information in their threat assessment reports, without disclosing the specific sources of that information.

Another problem with threat assessments is that they can lead those conducting them to over-rely on the instruments, at the expense of building a relationship with victims of abuse. Victim advocates point out that victims are most apt to disclose information once a relationship of trust is established. Victims are most likely to trust helpers who are nonjudgmental, validating, and respectful. Information about abusive behavior is revealed over time with the development of a trusting relationship. Sometimes the most useful information provided by the victim is not the presence or absence of particular items on a threat assessment checklist, but a more contextualized history of the perpetrator's abusive behavior. Some victims may be put off by evaluators who want to know "just the facts" and who appear more concerned about filling out a form as opposed to trying to get the whole story. Advocates who take down the histories of victims find that victims are better able to remember and to articulate relevant events when asked open-ended as well as guided questions. The Danger Assessment tool developed by Jacquelyn Campbell, for instance, includes a step during which the evaluator uses a calendar to prompt the victim's memory of abusive incidents during the past year. The advantage of this approach is not only that the victim may reveal more information that is critical to a threat assessment but also she may be more likely to use the helping system that employs this approach.


Excerpted from Why Do They Kill? by David Adams. Copyright © 2007 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, vii,
1 Men Who Kill Their Partners, 1,
2 Recognizing Abusive Men, 23,
3 Killer Profiles, 35,
4 The Killers' Upbringings, 120,
5 Short Courtships, 138,
6 Child Abuse, 148,
7 Patterns of Possession and Punishment, 163,
8 Victim Help-Seeking, 220,
9 Conclusions and Recommendations, 251,
Notes, 269,
References, 275,
Index, 283,

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