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Research pinpoints risks for spousal murder

Could the answers to why someone would kill their partner or spouse lie in the 12 months leading up to the murder?

Professor Paul Mazerolle believes they might.

The Griffith University Violence Research and Prevention Program director has spent the better part of the past three-and-a-half years working on finding those answers.

The Australian Homicide Project, when completed, aims to provide better understanding of why people take such a drastic and violent action, identify risks, and help stakeholders - such as criminal and social welfare agencies - improve their responses to those risks.

Spousal or partner killing - known as 'intimate partner homicide' - has been a particular focus of the project, which also involves Li Eriksson, Holly Johnson and Richard Wortley.

Findings from the project were released at a symposium in Brisbane this week.


For the past decade, Australia has averaged 300 homicides a year. Professor Mazerolle said of those 300 or so, between one-fifth and one-quarter were intimate partner homicide.

From more than 200 interviews with homicide offenders, primarily those still in prison, the team have been able to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Among them is studying the year prior to the killing, which could provide crucial insight into common risk factors which may help prevent future murders.

“We have been examining the 12 months before the incident and the month-to-month changes in risk, things like unemployment, alcohol patterns or separation or suspicion of partner cheating,” Professor Mazerolle said.

“We think it is important to discover how risks are changing over time so we can then illuminate chances for prevention.”

The research team have been employing a “life event history calendar” to help jog participants' memories about the months leading up to the killing.

More of the men say they intended to hurt, not kill, while more of the women said they intended to kill

“They are putting events in sequences, when their birthday is, when Christmas is and generally, we found that the individuals who have consented to be interviewed about their experiences and have been quite frank about the information and the motivation, coming from many of them is [a] hope the information helps other people,” Professor Mazerolle said.

“These are still just preliminary results because the study is still ongoing, but what we will be able to do with the study is show in a very different way how risks for partner homicide are absolutely unfolding.

“We have the ability to explore with people who kill an intimate partner whether they have a history of domestic violence and whether there are differences. So what we suspect is people who kill an intimate partner are not all the same, there are different things for different people.

“Some of it is right in the moment and we have data on the situational issues; some of it is affected by very extreme emotional reactions like rage and anger; so some of the things you expect, like sexual jealousy, male control and concerns about separation [are there] but we want to see how that relates to the other circumstances of the homicide: the sort of weapons that were used, is there any planning? Those sorts of things.

“Some of the offenders ... planned to hurt their partner, not kill.  The killing can be incidental to a violent incident.”

Differences between male and female killers are also starting to become clear.  While men outnumber women in the study, the researchers have found women are more likely to use weapons then are men and a higher proportion of women have a “higher intentionality to kill their partner”.

“More of the men say they intended to hurt, not kill, while more of the women said they intended to kill,” Professor Mazerolle said, adding that the women’s past circumstances, most often partner abuse, contributed.

“Sometimes partner homicide can be a strong reaction to partner victimisation - they may be more focused on the intentionality.  For the males, particularly if they are more violent, they might have intended to be violent to their partner, like they have in the past, but not necessarily intended to kill them.''

Professor Mazerolle said women were also more likely to be victims of partner homicide than other forms of homicide, but women who killed were most likely to have killed their partner.

Those facts alone are why he believes the community needs to take more of a stand against domestic violence - facts he doesn’t need the completed project to reveal.

“There is no question that partner homicide exists along a very long continuum of partner violence and we know generally that the community has a hard time getting involved,” Professor Mazerolle said.

“People hear screams, people know that there are problems next door but they tend not to intervene. 

''We have a lot of people, who are bystanders, but they don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to report it to the police, they think it is a private matter.

“We think that is a normal human attitude, but we think it needs to be confronted because domestic homicide, partner homicide, partner violence, this is a community problem and it needs the community to try and prevent it and try and solve the problem.”