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Current Trends Homicide Followed by Suicide -- Kentucky, 1985 - 1990

During March-May 1990, three widely publicized homicides followed by suicides occurred in Kentucky. Because the three incidents shared many features, the Division of Epidemiology, Department for Health Services, Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources, conducted a study to determine the extent of the problem and the characteristics of perpetrators and homicide victims. This report presents the findings of this study.

A homicide/suicide cluster was defined as one or more homicides with the subsequent suicide of the perpetrator that occurred in Kentucky from 1985 through 1990. Of 67 homicide/suicide clusters identified (Figure 1), 63 (94%) were found through matching death certificates by the last name of the homicide victim(s) and the perpetrator or by county of occurrence for homicides and suicides that occurred on the same day (n=53) or through computer searches of two newspapers with statewide coverage (n=40); 30 homicide/suicide clusters were from both sources. The remaining four (6%) homicide/suicide clusters were reported by the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association, a private advocacy group.

The 67 homicide/suicide clusters included 80 homicides; seven clusters involved multiple homicides. In 64 (96%) homicide/suicide clusters, the homicide and suicide occurred within a 24-hour period. Firearms were used in both the homicide and suicide in 63 (94%) homicide/suicide clusters.

Homicide/suicide clusters accounted for 6% of all homicides and 2% of all suicides in the state during the study period. The mean annual incidence of homicide/suicide clusters for Kentucky was 3.0 per million population.

Sixty-five (97%) of the 67 perpetrators were male, and 58 (73%) of the 80 homicide victims were female. The median age of perpetrators was 41 years (range: 21-89 years); the median age of homicide victims was 35 years (range: 2-90 years). Six (9%) of the 67 homicide/suicide clusters occurred in an occupational setting. For the 64 (96%) homicide/suicide clusters in which the race of both perpetrator and homicide victim(s) was known, 55 (86%) occurred among whites, and six (9%) among blacks; three (5%) were interracial. The incidence rate of homicide/suicide clusters for whites was 2.7 per million population, and for blacks, 3.4 per million.

The homicide victim and perpetrator were known to each other in 64 (96%) homicide/suicide clusters; 57 (85%) involved family members or intimates. In 47 (70%) clusters, the perpetrator was a current husband (37 clusters), boyfriend (seven), or a former husband (three) of the homicide victim. In 15 (41%) of the 37 in which the current husband was the perpetrator, the couple had previously filed for divorce (12) or was separated (three). In seven of these 15, the wife had obtained a domestic violence protective order or restraining order from a court. In two (3%) of the 67 clusters, the homicide victim(s) had sought shelter at one of 16 state-supported spouse-abuse centers.

A total of 37 previous criminal charges had been filed against 16 (24%) of the perpetrators; 17 (46%) of the charges involved threats or acts of violence to another person. Six (9%) perpetrators had been reported to the Kentucky Department for Social Services for spouse abuse (three) or for child abuse (three).

Of the 48 (72%) perpetrators who were tested postmortem for drugs and alcohol, 13 (27%) were positive for alcohol, five (10%) for psychoactive drugs, and six (13%) for both alcohol and drugs. Ten (21%) were legally intoxicated (blood alcohol concentration greater than or equal to 0.10%). Reported by: S Currens, Kentucky Domestic Violence Association; T Fritsch, Office of Attorney General; D Jones, Medical Examiner Br; G Bush, J Vance, State Police, Kentucky Justice Cabinet; K Frederich, Dept for Social Svcs; R Adams, M Adkins, J Bothe, G Murphy, C Webb, R Finger, MD, State Epidemiologist, Dept for Health Svcs, Kentucky Cabinet for Human Resources. Div of Field Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The findings in this study are consistent with those from previous studies that suggest homicide followed by suicide primarily involves family members or intimates (1,2). Earlier studies have indicated that the typical perpetrator is a man married or living with a woman in a relationship marked by physical abuse and who has a history of alcohol and substance abuse and access to firearms (1-3). Perpetrators may also be depressed and have personality disorders (3,4). Women who are ending relationships appear to be at increased risk for becoming victims (3).

Data on homicide followed by suicide are limited because many law enforcement agencies do not compile statistics on such incidents. No national figures exist on the incidence of homicide followed by suicide. Improved data collection and data linkage will be required to better define the scope of the problem.

As a result of increased public concern in Kentucky, the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association has formed a homicide/suicide task force, and the state attorney general has created the Task Force on Domestic Violence Crime. Both include persons from social service and criminal justice agencies and local and state government. A curriculum for school children on prevention of family violence has been developed by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Although efforts to prevent homicide and suicide have been attempted, none have focused on combined events. Based on data in this study, potential interventions include improving enforcement of existing domestic violence laws, improving access to spouse-abuse shelters, preventing drug and alcohol abuse, and controlling firearms.

References

  1. Palmer S, Humphrey JA. Offender-victim relationships in criminal homicide followed by offender's suicide, North Carolina, 1972-1977. Suicide Life Threat Behav 1980;10:106-18.

  2. Allen NH. Homicide followed by suicide: Los Angeles, 1970-1979. Suicide Life Threat Behav 1983;13:155-65.

  3. Rosenbaum M. The role of depression in couples involved in murder-suicide and homicide. Am J Psychiatry 1990;147:1036-9.

  4. West DJ. Murder followed by suicide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967.



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