Domestic Violence Homicides

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD

©1998 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
LAW and ORDER Magazine, Vol. 46 No. 112, November 1998, pp 51-54

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Domestic violence homicides are among the most prevalent interpersonal violence murders committed in these United States.

The author, who served on New York Governor Pataki's Commission on Domestic Violence Fatalities from 1996 to 1997, was afforded an opportunity to participate in an in-depth analysis of the problem of domestic violence fatalities within New York State.

However, as this article describes domestic violence murders, the reader will understand that the dynamics of DV are universal.


Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of behaviors involving physical, sexual, economic and emotional abuse, alone or in combination, by an intimate partner often for the purpose of establishing and maintaining power and control over the other partner. The origins of domestic violence are in social, legal and cultural norms, some historical and some current, including acceptance of violent behavior by men as the heads of households. While domestic violence occurs in all types of intimate relationships, it is overwhelmingly a problem of violence perpetrated by men against women.¹


Domestic violence homicides are those murders that occur between men and women, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, boyfriends and boyfriends and girlfriends and girlfriend relationships. In fact, any murder between intimate partners would be considered a domestic violence homicide. They may also involve third party relationships, such as "love triangles" former husbands and/or wives, and jilted lovers.


In Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques, these murders are classified sex related homicides in the category of INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE ORIENTED DISPUTES AND ASSAULTS or LUST MURDERS depending on what was done to the victim. The motive in this category of slayings is most often based upon elements of rage, hate, anger, jealously or revenge. The psychological dynamics involved in such violent interpersonal disputes and assaults oftentimes present scenarios which involve violent actions and the classic statement; "If I can't have you then nobody will have you." This is most common in sexual domestic dispute cases.


In most instances the event is initiated when the woman attempts to end the relationship or petitions the court for an "Order of Protection" or "Restraining Order". The court order directs the other partner to stay away from the petitioner and refrain from any further harassment. The man becomes enraged with his loss of control and the attempt by the woman to "break the relationship" and engages in various acts of harassment which include stalking, threats, assault or other subtle forms of "psychological warfare."

This may culminate in a violent homicidal episode in which sexual aggression is evident in the crime scene. Every year thousands of women are killed in the United States in these interpersonal scenarios. Current and former husbands, lovers and friends commit most of these murders. And, it is important to note that domestic violence homicides involve homosexual as well as heterosexual relationships.

The author classifies Domestic Violence murders as Interpersonal Violence Oriented Homicide. They are the most prevalent form of sex related murder. The rationale for classifying domestic violence as sex related is due to the fact that murder serves as the ultimate form of sexual revenge. And, in many instances the homicides will include sexual assault or wound structures manifesting a sexual orientation.


Realistically speaking, domestic violence homicide is the one category of murder that is actually preventable. Early intervention by law enforcement, social services and the criminal justice system can effectively deter future violence. However, in order to attain success there must be a goal of zero tolerance in the community. This requires that all elements of the community respond with a consistent, clear message that domestic violence is NOT tolerable.

Law enforcement agencies alone cannot eliminate domestic violence. Domestic assault must be confronted on many fronts. Schools must educate children on the existence and danger of domestic violence; members of the clergy must send an unequivocal message from the pulpit that domestic violence is unacceptable; and neighbors, friends, and co-workers of domestic violence victims must be alert to the potential danger.

However, law enforcement is usually the first to respond to domestic violence incidents. Therefore, the police are in the best position to initiate intervention. The police are able to arrest the offender and make a determination of who was the "primary aggressor." They determine what charges are possible and insure the safety of the victim and any children present. In addition, there is also a link between domestic violence and child abuse, which are well-documented in clinical literature. The police may decide to remove the batterer from the home. And/or, request social services to offer the woman and child shelter services. In most instances the police intervention is unannounced and spontaneous. Therefore, the police may observe other conditions which put the children or mother at risk such as the precipitating factors of alcohol and drug abuse.


Police responded to calls from neighbors indicating domestic abuse. They discovered that a man had been holding his wife and children prisoner in their apartment. He had beaten her, broken her eye-socket and threatened her with a gun. The husband was arrested for assault, unlawful imprisonment, possession of a gun and menacing. The case went to trial. However, the woman refused to testify against her husband. The District Attorney's Office took the case to trial without the cooperation of the witness. The husband pled guilty and was supposed to serve one year. However, the judge released him in a plea agreement which, was supposed to include supervision and an order of protection. The District Attorney's Office objected to his release. Although the wife feared her husband, she told her friends that; "Her sons need a dad." She allowed him to return to their apartment. Within one month, the man butchered his wife and one of his sons as the other son called 9-1-1. The boy could be heard yelling in the background; "Daddy! Daddy! Don't, Daddy! The man used a hatchet and knife to decapitate his wife's head and his son's heads. He attacked the other son, who escaped and managed to survive his injuries. He then slit his wrists but did not die. Had the man been incarcerated and the woman and children afforded shelter, this homicide could have been prevented.¹

The uncooperative victim, who refuses assistance creates a dilemma for the police, social services and the criminal justice system.


Police were summoned to a home by the husband, who reported that he had been attacked by a man with a knife, who had killed his wife. His wife's body was in the basement. He indicated that he had also been injured and showed the officers some superficial cuts and puncture wounds on his body. The man was transferred to the Emergency Room of the local hospital for treatment. The female victim, who had received multiple stab wounds was found lying on her back.

Her pants had been ripped open and her panties had been pulled down to reveal her pubic area. Her sanitary napkin was pulled away and between her legs the crime scene officers retrieved an unused condom. The male had stated that he had surprised an intruder, when he had come home from jogging.

The male showed the officers evidence of a burglary which consisted of items being tossed on the floor and perfume bottles being turned over on the dresser in the master bedroom. However, there wasn't anything missing. Although the presentation of the female body in the crime scene suggested a sexual attack, the circumstances of the event as well as the inconsistent statements of the husband indicated this murder to be based on an interpersonal oriented dispute and assault scenario. The husband was charged with his wife's murder based on the police investigation as well as the blood evidence and DNA testing.

It should be noted that family members who were interviewed by the police after the murder reported that the victim had been in fear of her husband because of his physical and sexual abuse. Had there been intervention this woman would have been alive.¹


A middle-aged male was found slain in his apartment. His throat had been slashed and there were multiple wounds into his chest. His face was covered with a towel. Someone had smashed all of the knick-knacks and figurines in the apartment. His roommate, who was twenty years younger, was reportedly seen leaving the apartment with a suitcase. Police located him at a bus station. He was to leave town. Police had been called to the premises in the past in connection with domestic disputes over the younger man staying out and partying while the older male was paying their bills. ¹


It has been my experience that male homosexual homicides involving interpersonal violence often present patterns of injuries which can best be described as overkill. These injuries are usually directed to the throat, chest, and abdomen of the victims. It has been suggested, but not empirically proven, that the assault to the throat takes place because of the sexual significance of the mouth and throat in male homosexual "love-making." There are certain "psychosexual wound structures" present in both homosexual and heterosexual homicides. The cutting of the throat, the stabbing into the chest, attacks to the breasts in females, the slashing of the abdomen and attacks to the genitalia are indications of the sexual significance of the motive.

Although most of the interpersonal violence oriented scenarios among homosexuals involve male participants, there are similar cases of extreme sexual violence involving female victims engaged in a lesbian relationship. The author is aware of a brutal sexual torture, and mutilation murder of a 12 year-old girl in Indiana. The victim was killed because she had begun a lesbian relationship with a young girl, who had previously dated another lesbian.

The offender talked three other teenage girls into helping her kill the victim who was taken to a remote location where she was stripped and physically and sexually assaulted.

In some instances the death may not appear to be sexually motivated. However, upon an examination into the background and relationships of the victim a new possibility soon presents itself to the authorities.


It is important to note that the motivation in an interpersonal violence oriented dispute may be obscured by what was done to the body of the victim, or how the crime scene was staged or changed. Originally, what appeared to be a rape-murder, the work of a sexual psychopath, or a lust murder is oftentimes based on interpersonal violence.


I remember supervising the investigation of a case which appeared to have been committed by a lust murderer or a psychotic killer. The partially clad body of a 22 year old black female was discovered in her apartment. She had been savagely beaten on the head with a baseball bat and her throat had been slashed. Next to the body was a blood stained drinking glass. I observed a lip print in blood upon the rim of the glass, suggesting that the glass had been used to drink blood. On the coffee table in the living room were a number of kitchen knives, which had been used to slice the victim's body. All the utensils were lined up on the coffee table like an operating room in a hospital. The victim had been eviscerated and a large soda bottle had been thrust into her abdominal cavity. Her intestines could be observed inside of the clear plastic bottle. There were a number of postmortem slicing to her breasts and chest. In addition, the killer had also carved diagonal wounds into both of the victim's legs. This murder was actually committed in a fit of rage during a domestic dispute by the victim's live-in boyfriend.


Homicides involving Domestic Violence can be prevented through early intervention by law enforcement, social services and the criminal justice system. Even victims who are reluctant to press charges due to lack of resources; emotional, physical, financial, or psychological can be assisted once they have been identified and removed from the hostile environment. Persons who abuse their partners are potentially dangerous and some are more likely to kill. Especially when certain conditions exist. These conditions or indicators pose the potential to kill. I have provided a listing of LETHALITY INDICATORS¹ from The Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence as a reference. Obviously, the more indicators present or the greater intensity of the indicators the greater the potential for Domestic Violence Homicide.


The batterer who states "Death before divorce!" or "You belong to me and will never belong to another!" or the old standby; "If I can't have you nobody will!" May be stating his fundamental belief that you have no right to life separate from him. A batterer who believes he is absolutely entitled to a woman's services, obedience and loyalty, no matter what, may be life-endangering.

A man who idolizes his partner, or who depends heavily on her to organize and sustain his life, or who has isolated himself from all other community, may retaliate against a partner who decides to end the relationship. He rationalizes that her "betrayal" justifies his lethal "retaliation."

Where a batterer has been acutely depressed and see little hope for moving beyond depression, he may be a candidate for homicide and suicide. Research shows that many men who are hospitalized for depression have homicidal fantasies directed at family members.

Partner or spousal homicide almost always occurs in a context of historical violence. Prior intervention by the police indicate elevated risk of life-threatening conduct.

A less obvious indicator of increasing danger may be the sharp escalation of personal risk undertaken by a batterer; when a batterer begins to act without regard to the legal or social consequences that previously constrained his violence. The chances of lethal assault increase significantly.

The batterer who has threatened to kill his (ex) partner, himself, the children or her relatives must be considered extremely dangerous.

The more the batterer has developed a about who, how, when and/or where to kill, the more dangerous he may be. The batterer who has previously acted out part of a homicide or suicide fantasy may be invested in killing as a "solution to his problems."

When a batterer possesses, collects, or is obsessed with weapons and/or has used them or has threatened to use them in the past in his assaults on women, the children or himself, increases his potential for lethal assault. If a batterer has a history of arson or the threat of arson, fire should be considered a weapon.

When a batterer believes that he is about to lose His (ex) partner or when he concludes that she is permanently leaving him; if he cannot envision life without her, this may be when he chooses to kill. That is not to say that all batterers kill when they conclude that the battered woman is separating from him. Some kill long before they have any idea that the battered woman may be thinking about leaving. So, it is not safe to assume that because she hasn't made plans to leave, that the batterer will not be dangerous. In one study of spousal homicide, over half the men were separated from their victims when they murdered them (Bernard et al, 1982). Women are most likely to be murdered when attempting to report abuse or to leave an abusive relationship (Sonkin et al, 1985; Brown, 1987)

A batterer who has demonstrated aggressive behavior to the general public such as bar fights, gang related violence, job related violence, vandalism, repeated unlawful behavior, or illegal occupation is likely to be more dangerous.

A hostage-taker is at high risk of inflicting homicide. Between 75% and 90% of all hostage takings in the United states are related to domestic violence situations.

Men with a history of problems with drugs and/or alcohol show a higher risk. In addition, regardless of their drug and/or alcohol history, intoxication at the time of the assault shows significant risk to partners.

The more severe the violence either experienced personally, or observed, in the family of origin, the more the risk.

1 Commission on Domestic Violence Fatalities. Report to the Governor of New York State, October 1997. The Honorable Jeanine Pirro, Westchester County District Attorney, and Commission chairperson.
2 New York Daily News. June 10, 1997, p. 7
3 Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. THIRD EDITION. Pp. 27-29. Boca Raton, FL: CRC PRESS, INC., 1996
4 Author's Files
5 Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. THIRD EDITION. Pp. 425. Boca Raton, FL: CRC PRESS, INC., 1996
6 Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence. Ms. Barbara Hart, 1997.

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