Wives Also Kill Husbands--Quite Often

by Alan M. Dershowitz

Though O.J. Simpson vehemently denies that he murdered his former wife, his case has provoked a flurry of media attention toward other husbands who kill their wives. Coincidentally with the Simpson case, the Department of Justice has just released the first detailed empirical study of "murder in families." It contains some surprising information, which contrasts sharply with the media headlines.

The most shocking finding of this study--which analyzed nearly ten thousand cases--is that wives murder their husbands far more frequently than press reports would suggest. To put the issue in context, women in general account for only about 10 percent of defendants charged with all murders. But for all spousal murders, women accounted for more than 40 percent of defendants. And "among black marital partners, wives were just about as likely to kill their husbands as husbands were to kill their wives." Not surprisingly, when it comes to parents who kill their children, mothers kill more often than fathers.

The real headline of this report, therefore, is that women W almost as often as men do in the context of all family murders, though men much more often kill strangers--nearly always other men,

The other shocker in this report is that husbands who kill their wives are not treated more leniently than men who kill strangers, despite the media myth to the contrary. Indeed, they were as likely to be charged with first-degree murder, were no more likely to have their cases dismissed or diverted, and were as likely to be convicted. Nor were their sentences significantly different, when relevant "case characteristics"--such as prior criminal record--were taken into account. Indeed, the only real difference is that spousal murderers "required less time to disposition than other types of murder cases."

Despite this hard data, the myths persist that spousal murders consist almost exclusively of husbands who kill their wives and are then treated leniently by the criminal-justice system. Indeed, there is one figure that is strikingly missing from this otherwise thorough report: namely, whether women who murder their husbands are treated more leniently than husbands who murder their wives. I phoned the author of the report and asked if that data was available. He told me that it was but that it had not been compiled. I asked him if he would compile it and he did, faxing me new tables that compared the outcome of prosecution based on the gender of the victim and the accused. This previously unpublished data dramatically undercuts the myth that husbands who kill their wives are treated more leniently than wives who kill their husbands. The available evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, Wives who kill their husbands were acquitted in 12.9 percent of the cases studied, while husbands who kill their wives were acquitted in only 1.4 percent of the cases. Women who were convicted of killing their husbands were sentenced to an average of six years in prison, while men received an average of seventeen years for killing their wives, Sixteen percent of female spousal killers get probation, compared to 1.6 percent for males. By almost every other measure as well, female spousal killers are treated more leniently than male spousal killers. To be sure, some of the differences may be attributable to gender-neutral factors such as prior record, provocation, or mental illness. But there is absolutely no support in this data for the claim that husbands who kill their wives are systematically treated with kid gloves by the justice system.

Despite the unexpected data produced by this justice Department study--that wives kill husbands much more frequently than media accounts suggest and that they are treated more leniently than husbands who kill--the press release issued by the justice Department to accompany the report buried this politically incorrect data under the following politically correct headline: "Wives are the most frequent victims in family murders." But even that conclusion obscures the real picture: that for all family murders--which includes killing of parents and children as well as spouses--55.5 percent of the victims were males and 44.5 percent females, and "female defendants were more likely than male defendants to have murdered a person of the opposite sex.

The Justice Department report on "murder in families" sheds important light on a subject that is being obscured by the heat of political rhetoric The new data strongly suggests that spousal murder is not primarily a male-versus-female political issue, as some radical feminists and media commentators insist. Instead, it is primarily a psychological issue of pervasive familial violence on all sides, generated by the passions of family interaction. Misdiagnosing this important psychological problem to fit into a political agenda will delay its proper treatment and cure. The problems of spousal abuse and violence are far too serious to be turned into divisive "we versus them" political or gender issues.

Dershowitz, Alan M. 1994. "Wives Also Kill Husbands--Quite Often."  In The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-outs, Sob Stories and Evasions of Responsibility. Boston: Little Brown.