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New research: family violence history not always recognised in homicides

New research: family violence history not always recognised in homicides

Photo of the 'out of character' research paper

A new study by DVRCV and Monash University shows that many men who kill their partners have previously been abusive or violent towards them and rarely do these homicides occur ‘out of the blue’.  

The research on homicide prosecutions in Victoria between 2005 and 2014 found that the majority (80 percent) of people prosecuted for killing an intimate partner were male. In most of the 51 homicides by men, their partners had left the relationship or were trying to leave. It was also evident that at least half of the male offenders had previously been violent or abusive towards their partners.

There’s a common perception in the community that the most dangerous men are those who have a history of criminal convictions or who have physically assaulted their partners. However, this research shows that this is not always the case; in many of these homicides there were other clear warning signs of abuse. In several cases, the offender had not been physically violent but he had been highly controlling, tried to prevent his partner from working or from seeing friends, or he had been obsessively jealous. In about a quarter of cases the offender had threatened to kill his partner or threatened to kill himself if she left him.

However, when it comes to prosecuting and sentencing these offenders, a history of abusive behaviour was not always well recognised in the criminal justice process. Non-physical forms of family violence were often not seen to be significant, and relationships were frequently described by legal professionals as ‘volatile’ or ‘turbulent’. If the offender has had no previous convictions for family violence, the homicide was often presented in court as an isolated incident that occurred in response to the stress of separation or relationship difficulties. Although in most cases there were similar patterns of highly possessive and controlling attitudes towards the female partners, the courts tended to focus on mental illness as an explanation. In sentencing remarks in a number of cases, the offender was described as being of ‘good character’ despite a history of abusive behaviour.

In sentencing these men, only a small number of judges challenged their claims that the woman's behaviour caused their mental distress, or made strong statements about a woman’s right to end a relationship. Lawyers and judges involved in homicide prosecutions need ongoing training to improve understandings of the dynamics of family violence. Community perceptions of family violence are influenced by judicial sentencing remarks, which are often cited in the media after homicide trials. There is an opportunity for judges to improve community understandings of the causes of this significant social problem by emphasising the damaging impact of family violence and challenging the attitudes that contribute to intimate partner homicides.

The research was funded by the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program.

You can order a printed copy of the 160-page research paper ‘Out of character? Legal responses to intimate partner homicides by men in Victoria 2005-2014’ ($25) or view it online.