When Men Kill Women, Victim-Killer Relationship Affects Punishment: Study

Men who kill their wives, girlfriends or other female family members receive shorter prison terms than strangers who commit such crimes, according to new research by a University of Guelph professor.

The study by Myrna Dawson, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, is available online now in Current Sociology.

Its publication coincides with the United Nations’ International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women Nov. 25 and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign that launches Wednesday.

“Not all cases are treated alike,” said Dawson, a longtime member of Canada’s first Domestic Violence Death Review Committee and a recognized expert on homicide.

“How accused males are treated by the courts is affected by their relationship with their victims.”

In the first systematic review of its kind, Dawson examined court responses to femicide (the killing of women by men) in Ontario over four decades.

Homicide cases in Ontario between 1974 and 2013 included the killing of at least 1,381 women by men.

Data sources included coroner’s records, police reports and court files. Dawson analyzed factors including gender, relationships between victim and accused, criminal charges, guilty pleas and prison sentences.

Overall, cases involving men killing women resulted in more murder charges and convictions and longer prison sentences than cases of men killing men.

Men who killed women they did not know were treated the most severely, particularly at sentencing.

Men who killed their intimate partners or female family members were treated more leniently at several stages of the criminal justice process, including fewer charges of first-degree murder and less severe subsequent punishment overall, the study found.

“Men who killed their wives, lovers, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and so on were subject to what I argue is an  ‘intimacy discount,’” said Dawson, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy in Criminal Justice and heads U of G’s Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence.

This continues to occur despite legislation passed in the mid 1990s that stipulates an intimate relationship between a victim and accused can be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing, Dawson said.

Intimate femicide is still often considered as more spontaneous violence, despite evidence to the contrary, which might lead to reduced charges and more guilty pleas, Dawson said.

It might also explain why men who kill their intimate partners are three times more likely to receive convictions than strangers, she added. “This was the one exception to the overall more lenient treatment of these crimes.”

Overall, homicides in Canada have declined in the past several decades, including intimate partner homicide.

Female homicide rates in 2009 were two-thirds lower than in 1979.

“Some of this improvement may be due to increased legislative and policy responses to violence against women,” Dawson said, pointing to social and legal changes during the study period.

Despite the overall intimate partner homicide decrease, women’s risk remains three to five times higher than that of men.

Women are still at greater risk of being killed by an intimate partner (58 per cent of cases) or family member (15 per cent) than by a stranger (10 per cent).

As well, aboriginal women face a disproportionately higher risk of femicide overall, including intimate femicide, compared to non-aboriginal women. It’s an issue that has been the subject of much debate in Canada and calls for a national inquiry, Dawson said.

“Studies such as this are helping to identify patterns and priorities for action and future research,” she said.

“It has long been recognized that those who impose the law must recognize the seriousness of violence before society can effectively respond. We have made progress, but there is still work to be done addressing what may be, in part, the continuing impact of entrenched stereotypes about intimacy and violence.”

Dawson co-directs the recently launched Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative for Vulnerable Populations with Peter Jaffe at Western University. She also belongs to the international Homicide Research Working Group.

This latest study will also be included in Current Sociology’s upcoming special issue on femicide.