He saw her flirting with another man. He lost control. He flew into a rage––which ended in murder. This is the story we often hear about domestic homicide. But this story is not only false, it’s dangerous.
According to Jane Monckton Smith, a Professor of Public Protection at University of Gloucestershire, and the author of “In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder,” this is an example of the “crime of passion” theory—and it’s one of the biggest myths about intimate partner homicide.
Monckton Smith spent more than a decade researching and assessing domestic homicide cases and interviewing killers, trying to understand what, exactly, drove them to murder. Her main finding: Those who commit violence share a common need to be “in control,” and instead of occurring spontaneously, the act is, in fact, usually premeditated. In other words, most murders are not crimes of passion.
Gregory K. Moffatt, Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University, is a former homicide profiler with the Atlanta Cold Case Squad who served for nearly a decade as a regular lecturer at the FBI Academy. He agrees that the crime of passion narrative is misleading, since it “implies that it is impulsive and comes out of the blue,” which, he notes, is false.
Getting the Courts on Board
One reason the “crime of passion” myth is so pervasive: It’s used in nearly every single domestic homicide defense argument. However, crimes that fit this description happen in fewer than 5% of cases. “It’s just not accurate,” Monckton Smith said. “It’s not a reflection of reality at all.” Instead, killers calculate.
Despite the statistics, the courts don’t often entertain alternative narratives for domestic homicide. They have been “resistant” to the evidence, Monckton Smith said. “They’re resistant to being trained and listening,” she said. “Very tied to traditional beliefs––and the crime of passion is a very traditional belief.”
Domestic violence cases, she said, do not apply the same kind of rules as in other cases. But they are really not so difficult to prosecute––and paying attention to the facts would be a good place to start. “There are very ingrained belief systems about violence against women which makes them difficult to prosecute, because of the way we approach the crime itself,” Monckton Smith said. “That is about society. That is about double standards, belief systems that prioritize male thinking. We are much quicker to forgive and excuse men than we are women.”
Those who challenge this mindset, she believes, are seen as hating men. “That’s a diversion from reality,” she said. “But those people with the power to divert are very powerful; as soon as you make a counter-argument, people stop listening.”
Those who commit domestic homicide, Monckton Smith said, are a “type.”
“There is a mountain of research and evidence to show that intimate-partner abuse is committed by a similar type of person with certain belief systems,” she said. And they are mostly men: Women make up fewer than 10% of the perpetrators of domestic homicide. The victims, mainly women, range from those involved in one-night stands to those who have been married to their partner for 50 years. Monckton Smith believes that we need to adjust our view of domestic abuse: to realize that it is not merely a couple’s problem, but the fact that it is about a perpetrator who finds a victim. We need, in other words, and to see domestic abuse as a red flag for potential domestic homicide.
Defenses tend to lean also on the narrative of mental illness. Instead, according to Monckton Smith, courts should pay attention to evidence “which says that they’re a type, they’re a dangerous type, they’re more given to being very concerned about their own status, and when that is challenged, [they] will kill.”
Controlling patterns can be the result of personality disorders—about half of the perpetrators are lacking in empathy, and are callous and self-serving. But it’s not the only reason these patterns develop. The pattern often arises when one person is dependent on the status they derive from being a couple. The common denominator is that perpetrators believe themselves to be entitled to be in charge of their relationship.
Myths about Victims
We also often question the mental fitness of victims. “The cause of their behavior is not mental illness, although trauma can cause mental illness,” she said. “They’ll say: ‘And why didn’t the victim leave? Oh, because they’re mentally ill. They’ve got battered-women syndrome,’” Monckton Smith said. We also often say that victims of domestic violence are weak, or, in some sense, want to be controlled. This is also untrue—and a dangerous way of viewing these relationships. Instead, we should see that victims and perpetrators are making “rational choices,” Monckton Smith said.
“The victim is making rational choices because they’re bloody scared, and that’s what scared people do, and the abusers are a type that are serially abusive,” she said. “But we don’t want that story.”
The Bigger Picture
While we think of serial killers as “the most dangerous predators,” Monckton Smith observed, we still view intimate homicide killers as husbands, fathers, and lovers. “Why are we refusing to make that leap?”
Another problem is that we’re still assessing the relationship as a two-way street, she said. “Why are we assessing them like this? We’ve got a dangerous person, looking around for a victim, who’s gotten into a relationship with someone. And we look to share the blame around.” While victims may behave in a range of ways––fighting back, becoming compliant, hiding out in fear––“what’s consistent is the perpetrator,” she said.
Authorities don’t always see the true situation victims are involved in. They are intimidated, she said, and are thinking primarily about how to manage their safety. “We’ve been trying to teach police officers and other professionals for years to be empathetic,” she said. “But why don’t you just start talking to this person as if a crime has been committed? As if she is an intimidated witness. What’s going to happen if you help her?”
Developing a Homicide Timeline
Domestic abuse is both pervasive and far-reaching: we know that those with a history of domestic assault are more likely to go on shooting sprees, for instance, and 20% of victims of this violence are not partners. And the problem has gotten worse during COVID-19––a recent report from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) shows a spike in domestic violence, presumably because increased time spent at home led to escalated conflicts. And the data here may be underrepresenting the problem, since the pandemic is not yet over, and many victims of abuse are undoubtedly keeping quiet.
Understanding patterns behind intimate partner homicide is critical in protecting potential victims as well as ensuring that those who do murder are prosecuted properly, since perpetrators of domestic abuse are more likely to commit other violent acts. Finding patterns in her research, Monckton Smith developed a “homicide timeline,” marking the 8 specific stages that lead to murder. This is currently being used by police departments and courts to predict domestic homicide.
Gregory K. Moffatt agrees that Monckton Smith is “exactly right that domestic homicide flows in cycles.” He does add that domestic violence does not necessarily lead to homicide––“so caution should be taken in how it is applied.” But the homicide model “can be extremely helpful for intervention and perhaps for sentencing and managing protective orders,” Moffatt said.
In her Hidden Homicides Project, Monckton is trying to uncover deaths that may have been domestic abuse homicides. These are deaths that are not marked as suspicious, that may seem ordinary, but where a red flag could point to foul play.
“Where people are saying, ‘no, this is a homicide,’ you’ve got to listen to us,” she said. From her estimates in this project, Monckton Smith said that hidden homicides may represent a huge amount ––she said that there are as many, if not more, hidden homicides than registered homicides, in total.
Helping Those at Risk
For those who are concerned about someone who may be at risk, Monckton Smith offers advice: don’t assume you can rush in and save them. This could push the victim back into the arms of the abuser. Instead, treat it as “a long game,” she advised. The best thing you can do, she said, is to simply remain present and create a supportive environment––so that when they are ready to leave, you are there waiting for them.
Monckton Smith knows, from personal experience, just how difficult this long game can be. When her daughter was in an abusive relationship, she “came very close to losing her.” This is not uncommon––a controlling partner often makes it difficult for the victim to keep outside people (especially people who may be influential) close.
“But I was like a dog with a bone; I wasn’t going anywhere,” she said. When her daughter phoned her in the middle of the night, she went and got her, no questions asked. “I didn’t fight with her. I didn’t say ‘not this again,’ because I knew, the first time I said that, she wouldn’t call me again,” Monckton Smith said.
“I had to reconstruct my relationship with my daughter,” she recalled. “And when she was being really annoying and challenging and difficult because of the situation, I had to say, ‘don’t worry. I understand.’ Even if I wanted to scream and shout.” It’s a stereotype that victims of domestic abuse chose their situation––for instance, in cases where they return to a violent partner after a restraining order is issued. But this misses the bigger picture.
“People in those situations, the thinking is very short term,” Monckton Smith said. It’s virtually impossible to imagine the future. “They are managing their safety, and managing a person who behaves like a recalcitrant bloody toddler. But it’s a very dangerous, insane toddler. So, they’re always planning for the short term: how do I get through today?”
Helping victims see the future, and what life would look like if they escape their situation, is critical.
The best way to truly address, and prevent, intimate partner homicide is by starting to talk about the issue candidly and stop perpetuating the “crime of passion” myth, Monckton Smith believes. “If a critical mass speaks the truth, it will take the power away from the [offenders],” she said.