Women who killed their husbands ‘rarely gave a warning’ and most were not abused, study finds

Most of the murders, carried out by knife, gun and strangulation, generally seem to go undetected, analysis of 20 years of Quebec homicide files suggests.

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Conventional wisdom suggests that women often kill their spouses in self-defense or as a final, desperate reaction to chronic assault, the burning bed syndrome sometimes cited as a defense in murder trials. Yet a new Canadian study suggests that only a quarter of spouse killers are victims of domestic abuse, fewer than half have any identified psychological problems, and even fewer have been in trouble with the police.

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Most of the murders, carried out by knife, gun and strangulation, generally seem to go undetected, analysis of 20 years of Quebec homicide files suggests.

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“Women rarely gave a warning before killing their partners,” concluded the study, co-authored by Dr. Dominique Bourget, a forensic psychiatrist at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “In the vast majority of cases of women who killed their partners, there were very few indicators that could have signaled risk and helped predict violent and lethal behavior.”

Women who kill their partners have been an under-examined group, the researchers note, as they represent a minority of all partner homicides. Nearly 80% of the 738 spousal murders in Canada between 2000 and 2009 were committed by men, who the study found are also almost exclusively responsible for bloody massacres in which children, as well as a partner, are killed in a single act. .

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Working in conjunction with the Quebec coroner’s office, Royal Ottawa investigators reviewed files on the 276 spousal homicides in the province between 1991 and 2010, 42 of which, or 15%, were committed by the female partner. The information included the coroner’s report, police records and autopsy results, and medical records.

The stereotype is so strong that when you look at the actual data, you are shocked.

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Although 35% of the male victims had a history of at least one act of violence in the past, the researchers say they found evidence that only 26% of the women had been physically abused by their partners. That differs markedly from the findings of a 1989 US study that indicated that nearly all women who committed spousal homicides did so in a setting of domestic violence, and a Canadian paper from the same period that attributed the motives for most of those homicides to self-defense, says the study, recently published in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law.

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For Don Dutton, a UBC psychology professor who has examined domestic violence for decades, the new study’s results are not surprising, despite what he called a misunderstanding of “intimate partner” aggression that continues to prevail. in society.

“We have a stereotype about domestic violence… that the oppressor or perpetrator is the man and when female violence occurs, it is a reaction against male violence,” she said. “The stereotype is so strong that when you look at the actual data, you are shocked.”

Professor Dutton, author of the book Rethinking Domestic Violence, suggested that such assumptions evolved from the feminist view that family violence was a sociopolitical act of “patriarchal men who suppress women.” Instead, he argues, personality disorders in male and female offenders better explain family violence than social norms.

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Professor Dutton, who was not involved in the Quebec research, cited a number of studies in the United States that concluded that the most common type of domestic violence was not abuse of women by men, but “bilateral “in which both spouses hurt each other in a similar way. gravity.

The Quebec review also found that just over one in five of the women had documented psychiatric conditions such as major depression or schizophrenia, although a similar number were suffering from acute intoxication at the time of the homicide, the research indicates.

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Only three of the women were known to have had previous contact with the police or justice system due to violent behaviour, and there was evidence that only two had seen a psychologist or psychiatrist for depression or psychosis.

About 14% of women attempted or succeeded in committing suicide, compared to 45% of male murders.

Approximately half of the wives used a knife to kill their partner, 35% committed the act with a gun, while two women strangled the man and one used a blunt instrument.

A higher percentage of male murderers than women strangled, bludgeoned, or beat their spouses to death rather than using a knife or gun.

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