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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jacqueline Parsons

Portrait of a Murderer-10 Common Characteristics of Killers in the US

“When you read the account of a murder - or, say, a fiction story based on murder - you usually begin with the murder itself. That's all wrong. The murder begins a long time beforehand. A murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances, all converging at a given moment at a given point.”

Agatha Christie- Towards Zero

Hollywood and Literary Criminology

Public perception of murderers is greatly shaped by Hollywood and literary criminology. Television, movies and literature often depict killers as cunning and mindful, with police investigations solving the murder by the end of the story. However, popular culture rarely depicts the real-world characteristics of murder offenders.

Unfortunately, the information we have from some law enforcement agencies is incomplete. Many homicides aren’t reported. The non-profit Murder Accountability Project has sued several federal agencies, including the FBI, Department of Defense, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, for not reporting thousands of homicides in their various jurisdictions. We can make some overall generalizations about murderers’ characteristics with the data available, though.

10 Characteristics Murderers Share

Killers in the United States often share one or more of the 10 characteristics below:

1. Male – As long as murder statistics have been tracked, men have committed the majority of murders. In 2018, 63% of murderers were male in the US.

2. Black – Approx. 39% of offenders are black and 30% are white. An additional 30% of the offenders’ race are unknown.

3. Twenty-something –The most common age ranges reported for killers are in the twenties, with 14% between the ages of 20-24 and 12% between 25-29.

4. Poverty - There is no correlation between poverty and murder. However, cities with a high percentage of poverty tend to have higher murder rates. Dr. Martin Daly shared that income inequality predicts murder rates better than any other variable.

5. Gun Ownership or access - Historically, guns have been and continue to be the primary weapon used in homicides. Three-quarters of all U.S. murders in 2017 involved a firearm.

“Not every trauma creates a killer, but most killers are created from trauma”.

6. Mental health issues - Offenders have a higher rate of mental illness compared to the general public, with statistics varying between 40-55%. As a result, US prisons and jails have become the largest treatment providers for mental illness.

7. Substance Abuse - A 2019 study indicated that over 61% of murderers had used drugs or alcohol before the killing.

8. Single – A 2017 study indicated that more than 70% of murderers were unmarried. Killers that were married were usually in their thirties or older.

9. Gang member - In 2012 over 2300 murders were related to gang activity. Gang related murder typically occurs in larger cities.

10. Traumatized Childhoods – More than 75% of murderers have experienced childhood trauma. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, “Not every trauma creates a killer, but most killers are created from trauma”.

Americans love murder mysteries. We enjoy reading about the actual murder, but not the circumstances that shaped the murderer as an individual. Unlike the killers in novels, TV and the movies, American murderers tend to be single males in their twenties, with access to guns, histories of childhood trauma and behavioral health problems.

FYI - There's an excellent TedxToronto talk from 2018 by Dr. Michael Arntfield discussing murder, cold case files and Hollywood's depiction of murders, How you can help solve cold cases

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