Domestic Murder-Suicide: A Compound Tragedy
By Tony Salvatore, M.A.
A man shoots and kills a woman, believed to be his wife, in the parking lot of a local convenience store on a Monday afternoon. He then turns the gun on himself and dies on the way to the hospital. Witnesses report the couple had been arguing, and police describe the event as a likely murder-suicide.
This incident offers three characteristics common to most murder-suicides in the United States: 1) an intimate male and female dyad was involved, 2) a firearm was used in both deaths, and 3) the male perpetrator died by suicide shortly after murdering his spouse or partner.1
Murder-suicides take many forms and even include some mass shootings. This article will discuss the known incidence, demographics, potential risk factors, and possible motivations for such events.
Close to 600 murder-suicides occur yearly in the United States, accounting for 1,000 to 1,500 deaths.2 Although uncommon, such incidents vary widely in terms of the persons involved, how they are related, and where the crimes take place. Usually, law enforcement personnel deal with murder-suicides involving two people in domestic settings or relationships. Sixty-five percent of the events involve intimate partners, and 81% occur in the home.3 These represent domestic murder-suicides, in which one family or other household member kills another before committing suicide. They also include those where the victim is a former intimate partner.
Mr. Salvatore directs suicide prevention and postvention efforts at Montgomery County Emergency Service, a nonprofit psychiatric provider in Norristown, Pennsylvania, that trains law enforcement professionals in crisis intervention.
“Homicide-suicide” and “murder-suicide” are used synonymously but are not interchangeable. Homicide includes lethal acts that are not intentional. Murder-suicide correctly describes acts that always include the deliberate killing of others.
While multiple murders may occur in a domestic murder-suicide, one is most common. Children, even infants, may become victims; however, adults and older people, particularly the latter, make up most of the lives lost.
Disagreement exists in the literature as to whether murder,4 suicide,5 or a distinct phenomenon6 drives these incidents. Nonetheless, domestic murder-suicide has two compelling features in common with suicide: 1) it is overwhelmingly committed by adult and older adult white males, and 2) firearms are the principal lethal means used.
These elements support a suicide prevention perspective. Domestic murder-suicides progress from suicidality and involve the same factors underlying all suicides.7 This suggests that at some point, as the perpetrator’s risk emerges and intent rises, a domestic murder-suicide, like other suicides, may be preventable.
Domestic murder-suicide perpetrators belong to the same demographic group that accounts for most suicide victims in the United States — adult and older adult non-Hispanic white men. National Violent Death Reporting System data for 2003 to 2005 indicated that 91.4% of murder-suicides were committed by males, 97.6% by persons over age 19, and 77% by individuals identified as white.8
Members of every age group commit domestic murder-suicides, although youths perpetrate them less frequently than adults and older persons. One report characterized assailants as sexually jealous or rejected young men, mothers suffering from depression, and older men struggling to care for themselves and chronically ill spouses.9
Older adult males disproportionately represent the population carrying out murder-suicides, holding responsibility for at least one-third of all occurrences in the United States.10 A Florida study found a much higher incidence among such men — most in their 70s — than those in younger age groups.11
In many cases, both the victim and perpetrator may have failing health.12 The typical profile of a murder-suicide perpetrator is a depressed elderly man with new or worsening health problems who serves as the main caregiver for an increasingly dependent spouse and owns or has access to a firearm.13
Domestic murder-suicide data in the United States will improve substantially as more counties participate in the National Violent Death Reporting System and submit information from law enforcement, coroners, medical examiners, and other sources.
A proposed typology offers three rationales that may underlie many domestic murder-suicides.
- Significant negative dynamic, such as abuse, infidelity, or a perceived injustice, that exists in the relationship between the assailant and victim
- Perpetrator’s feeling of obligation toward the victim, such as protecting a spouse, partner, or child from the stigma or shame of the planned suicide or the hurtful consequences of something the actor has done
- Assailant’s sense of mercy to relieve the victim of ongoing suffering or indignity because of illness or disability14
In the first category, both the perpetrator’s homicidality and suicidality may be rooted in a deeply felt sense of loss of a highly valued relationship.15 The aggrieved assailant, typically a jealous or younger adult,16 may be overly dependent on the victim and unable to accept any change that affects that perception. Among older adults, domestic murder-suicide may grow out of a longstanding pattern of violence; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; and obsessive control.17
A husband killed his wife and then himself. Home video surveillance captured the incident. It shows the couple arguing and the husband beating his wife unconscious. He then shot himself. Investigation revealed a history of domestic violence.
After shooting his girlfriend, a 44-year-old man killed his ex-wife in her apartment. The assailant then turned the gun on himself. He posted his intentions and later a description of the first shooting on social media.
Feeling of Obligation
As described in the second category, the perpetrator may feel a deep sense of hopelessness and despair based on a self-appraisal of his behavior toward the victim (e.g., abuse or neglect). Or, he may desire to avert his perception of current or future harm (e.g., disgrace or humiliation) because of his actions outside of the relationship.18
For instance, a parent could face incarceration after a criminal offense or expect penalties and publicity associated with high-profile civil litigation. Suicidal intent may arise from the offender’s feeling that someone close to him would be better off if he were dead. Homicidality may emerge if he comes to believe that his death alone is insufficient to protect the loved one from shame.
An apparent murder-suicide involved a 41-year-old man wanted for multiple felonies who shot and killed a 35-year-old female fugitive in a car. He then committed suicide.
A 91-year-old man murdered his wife, also 91, in their home and then turned the gun on himself. They had been married for 65 years. Five years earlier, the man pleaded guilty to theft charges.
Investigation into a possible murder-suicide revealed a 33-year-old woman who used a knife found at the scene to kill herself and her 18-month-old daughter.
Sense of Mercy
The third category describes a domestic murder-suicide as possibly resulting from a situation involving the growing incapacitation of a chronically ill or disabled older woman whose husband can no longer be her principal caregiver. Most domestic murder-suicides may occur among elderly couples because men aged 75 to 85 have an elevated suicide risk, especially when certain factors are present.
- Suffering comorbid medical/neurological illness
- Feeling a loss of dignity and control
- Consuming three or more alcoholic drinks daily
- Being pessimistic and seeing life as pointless19
Strain exacerbated by growing caregiving demands amplifies the baseline risk of suicide among older men, which may co-occur with homicidality toward persons in their care.
Unfavorable life-changing situations may trigger suicidal thoughts in older adults.20 Dementia precipitates many relationship-altering crises and transitions in older people. Suicidal behavior often arises in the condition’s early stages, which may lead either or both parties to a domestic murder-suicide.21 The onset of dementia in a male caregiver may necessitate the move of a dependent spouse to a nursing home. He may feel she could not manage without him and he without her and that both would be better off dead than separated.
“Although uncommon, such incidents vary widely in terms of the persons involved, how they are related, and where the crimes take place.”
An elderly couple died of gunshot wounds in an apparent murder-suicide at an assisted living facility where the 86-year-old woman resided. Her 92-year-old husband lived nearby and was visiting at the time.
A family member found the bodies of a couple in their 80s in a hospital room. Both had been shot, indicating a murder-suicide. One of the decedents had been hospitalized for a serious medical condition.
Little guidance exists on recognizing domestic murder-suicide risk. Homicidality and suicidality are usually assessed separately under different circumstances.22 Co-occurrence or overlap may be missed. Authorities may not necessarily ask individuals considered in imminent danger to themselves about their homicidal intent toward others.23 Suicide risk assessments should include questions specific to murder-suicide and a subject’s attitude toward the act.24
One aspect of suicide risk bearing on domestic murder-suicide is the perpetrator’s acquired capability for self-harm. A prevailing theory posits that a suicide attempt requires an individual to overcome, among other things, the inborn resistance to such an act.25 This entails surmounting the fear of death, which can result from exposure to violence, greater pain tolerance, persistent suicidal ideation, mental practice of a suicide plan, and harming oneself. The capability for suicide, of which a past attempt is the most obvious indicator, is a prerequisite for domestic murder-suicide.
When there is a spouse or other family member incapable of self-care in the household, investigators should ask about homicidal thoughts or plans. Similarly, interviews with men suspected of domestic abuse or violence should aim to identify the risk of domestic murder-suicide. Police officers responding to situations where someone has threatened suicide frequently discover the presence of strong ideation and a plan. Threats and other expressions of intent are known to precede some cases of domestic murder-suicide.26
In more than half of murder-suicides in which an intimate partner was the victim, the offenders have histories of domestic conflict.27 Murder-suicide perpetrators are more likely than those who only commit murder or die by suicide to be married, cohabiting, separated, or divorced.28
Most domestic murder-suicides involve an older adult dyad. These couples may manifest signs of vulnerability to murder-suicide.
- Incidents of escalating domestic violence
- Male seeking/maintaining control over the female
- Relationship characterized by possessiveness
- Police contact with the household, resulting in restraining orders
- Presence of firearms in the home
- Use of weapons in household disputes
- Entrapment or isolation of the female partner in the residence29
Although these factors do not predict domestic murder-suicide, the presence of any combination of them should raise concern.
Police found a man and woman dead inside a home in what evidence indicated was a domestic murder-suicide. The man was a 33-year-old off-duty officer and the victim his girlfriend.
Officers investigated an apparent murder-suicide involving two sheriff’s deputies vacationing with coworkers. The deputies were reported to be romantically linked and had been arguing before the incident.
“Children, even infants, may become victims; however, adults and older people, particularly the latter, make up most of the lives lost.”
Law enforcement has an inherent interest in better understanding domestic murder-suicides. Twenty years ago it was noted, “Because of job-related variables and personality factors, police officers appear to be disproportionately at risk for suicide and its subset, homicide-suicide, compared to other occupational groups.”30 Subsequent research supports this sad reality.31 Municipal police officers are more often involved in domestic murder-suicides than are colleagues in other agencies.32
Interpersonal violence in police families and households is rarely studied.33 Early on, the risk for domestic murder-suicide among police officers was found to be related to the high incidence of household violence in their ranks.34 Research has confirmed the high occurrence of officer-involved domestic violence.35 Officers who commit murder-suicides most likely take the life of a spouse or other intimate partner.
Women perpetrate domestic murder-suicide against their intimate partner less frequently than men.36 However, there is evidence that female police officers are more likely than their civilian counterparts to murder another adult in a domestic murder-suicide.37
Insufficient research has been done on domestic murder-suicide in the law enforcement community.38 Further, its incidence and risk among retired police officers is not known.
Implications for Law Enforcement
Because suicide plays an inextricable role in murder-suicides, perhaps available knowledge about suicide can be cautiously applied to these incidents.
Suicidal behavior proceeds from ideation to action.39 Ideation may be the starting point and trajectory for domestic murder-suicide as well. Police officers dealing with overwhelmed or despondent older male caregivers should ask them about thoughts of relieving their burden or their spouse’s suffering by ending both lives.
Ideation may progress to suicidal intent and plans.40 Thoughts of domestic murder-suicide may grow into the desire to perpetrate such an act, a plan to do it, and attainment of the necessary lethal means. Suicide and murder-suicide are planned, intentional behaviors. Both result from a suicidal person’s psychological debilitation.
Police officers may find individuals admitting thoughts of suicide but denying immediate intent — for example, standing on a bridge or by railroad tracks to “see what it is like.” These are rehearsals. Some people who attempt or die by suicide enact or try out their plan one or more times beforehand.41
Nonlethal domestic violence incidents involving a weapon may similarly be a possible murder-suicide trial run. A perpetrator may rehearse the homicidal part of a domestic murder-suicide as a domestic assault days or weeks in advance.
Capability to attempt suicide can be acquired by mentally practicing a suicide plan.42 Ruminating on the plan reduces the fear of dying and raises the prospects of implementation. An individual contemplating domestic murder-suicide may passively run through the act mentally, building the ability to carry it out. Individuals felt to be at risk of domestic murder-suicide can be asked if they have a plan and if they have done anything to further it, such as a rehearsal or mental practice.
Officer-involved domestic murder-suicide data in the United States will be enhanced with reporting under the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection (LESDC) Act, which began in January 2022. LESDC captures information on the circumstances, location, and demographics of suicides among current and former law enforcement officers. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program manages this data collection.
Domestic murder-suicides are rare, but their association with suicidality is strong. The decision to die by suicide appears to precede and empower the decision to murder. Only a small number of suicidal individuals are potential domestic murder-suicide perpetrators. Nonetheless, tentatively exploring a suicidal individual’s possible danger to others as well as his evident danger to self may be a viable window for early intervention in a pending domestic murder-suicide.
“Because suicide plays an inextricable role in murder-suicides, perhaps available knowledge about suicide can be cautiously applied to these incidents.”
Mr. Salvatore can be reached at email@example.com.
1 Male pronouns are used for illustration throughout this article. Statistically, men are the predominant perpetrators of domestic murder-suicides.
2 Violence Policy Center, American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States (Washington, DC: Violence Policy Center, 2020), 1-2, https://vpc.org/studies/amroul2020.pdf.
3 Ibid., 2 and 5.
4 Roger W. Byard, “Murder-Suicide: An Overview,” in Forensic Pathology Reviews, Volume 3, ed. Michael Tsokos (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2005), 337-347, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-59259-910-3_11.
5 Mary Cooper and Derek Eaves, “Suicide Following Homicide in the Family,” Violence and Victims 11, no. 2 (1996): 99-112, https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.11.2.99.
6 Radoslaw Panczak et al., “Homicide-Suicides Compared to Homicides and Suicides: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Forensic Science International 233, no. 1-3 (December 2013): 28-36, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2013.08.017.
7 Thomas E. Joiner, The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 12.
8 Joseph Logan et al., “Characteristics of Perpetrators in Homicide-Followed-by-Suicide Incidents: National Violent Death Reporting System — 17 U.S. States, 2003-2005,” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 9 (November 2008): 1056-1064, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwn213.
9 Peter M. Marzuk, Kenneth Tardiff, and Charles S. Hirsch, “The Epidemiology of Murder-Suicide,” Journal of the American Medical Association 267, no. 23 (1992): 3179-3183, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1992.03480230071031.
10 Donna Cohen, “Homicide-Suicide in Older People, Psychiatric Times 17, no. 1 (2000): 1-7, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/28830.pdf.
11 Donna Cohen, Maria Llorente, and Carl Eisdorfer, “Homicide-Suicide in Older Persons,” American Journal of Psychiatry 155, no. 3 (March 1998): 390-396, https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.155.3.390.
13 Scott Eliason, “Murder-Suicide: A Review of the Recent Literature,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 37, no. 3 (2009): 371-376, http://jaapl.org/content/jaapl/37/3/371.full.pdf.
14 Joiner, 121-163.
15 George B. Palermo, “Murder-Suicide — An Extended Suicide,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 38, no. 3 (1994): 205-216, https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X9403800303.
16 Laura M. Schwab-Reese et al., “Homicide-Suicide Across the Lifespan: A Mixed Methods Examination of Factors Contributing to Older Adult Perpetration,” Aging & Mental Health 25, no. 9 (2021): 1750-1758, https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2020.1795620.
17 Sonia Salari, “Patterns of Intimate Partner Homicide Suicide in Later Life: Strategies for Prevention,” Clinical Interventions in Aging 2, no. 3 (February 2007): 441-452, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5804080_Patterns_of_intimate_partner_homicide_suicide_in_later_life_Strategies_for_prevention.
18 Perry L. Collins et al., “Filicide-Suicide: In Search of Meaning,” North American Journal of Psychology 3, no. 2 (2001): 277-292, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2001-11562-008.
19 Kimberly Van Orden and Yeates Conwell, “Suicides in Late Life,” Current Psychiatry Reports 13 (2011): 234-241, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-011-0193-3.
20 J. T. O. Cavanagh, D. G. C. Owens, and E. C. Johnstone, “Life Events in Suicide and Undetermined Death in Southeast Scotland: A Case-Control Study Using the Method of Psychological Autopsy,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 34, no. 12 (December 1999): 645-650, https://doi.org/10.1007/s001270050187.
21 Camilla Haw, Daniel Harwood, and Keith Hawton, “Dementia and Suicidal Behavior: A Review of the Literature,” International Psychogeriatrics 21, no. 3 (June 2009): 440-453, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610209009065.
22 Katherine van Wormer, “The Dynamics of Murder-Suicide in Domestic Situations,” Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention 8, no. 3 (August 2008): 274-282, https://doi.org/10.1093/brief-treatment/mhn012.
23 Marc Hillbrand, “Homicide-Suicide and Other Forms of Co-Occurring Aggression Against Self and Against Others,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 32, no. 6 (December 2001): 626-635, https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.32.6.626.
24 Christina L. Patton, Matthew R. McNally, and William J. Fremouw, “Military Versus Civilian Murder-Suicide,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 32, no. 17 (2017): 2566-2590, https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515593299.
25 Kimberly Van Orden et al., “The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide,” Psychology Review 117, no. 2 (2010): 575-600, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018697.
26 Jane Koziol-McLain et al., “Risk Factors for Femicide-Suicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study,” Violence and Victims 21, no. 1 (February 2006): 3-21, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16494130/; and Joseph E. Logan, Allison Ertl, and Robert Bossarte, “Correlates of Intimate Partner Homicide Among Male Suicide Decedents with Known Intimate Partner Problems,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 49, no. 6 (December 2019): 1693-1706, https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12567.
27 Logan et al.
28 Panczak et al.
30 Eleanor Pam, “Police Homicide-Suicide in Relation to Domestic Violence,” in Suicide and Law Enforcement, ed. Donald C. Sheehan and Janet I. Warren (Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001), 357-363, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/193528-193589.pdf.
31 Vera A. Klinoff, Vincent B. Van Hasselt, and Ryan A. Black, “Homicide-Suicide in Police Families: An Analysis of Cases from 2007-2014,” Journal of Forensic Practice 17, no. 2 (2015): 101-116, https://doi.org/10.1108/JFP-07-2014-0019.
32 John M. Violanti, “Homicide-Suicide in Police Families: Aggression Full Circle,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 9, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 97-104, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17725078/.
33 Rafaqat Cheema, “Black and Blue Bloods: Protecting Police Officer Families from Domestic Violence,” Family Court Review 54, no. 3 (2016): 487-500, https://doi.org/10.1111/fcre.12226.
35 Isaac Baron, “Officer-Involved Domestic Violence: The Mediating Factors,” Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science 6 (2018): 134-146, https://doi.org/10.31979/THEMIS.2018.0609.
36 Marieke Liem and Paul Nieuwbeerta, “Homicide Followed by Suicide: A Comparison with Homicide and Suicide,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 40, no. 2 (April 2010): 133-145, https://doi.org/10.1521/suli.2010.40.2.133.
38 Antoon A. Leenaars and Dale A. Lund, Suicide and Homicide-Suicide Among Police (New York: Routledge, 2010), https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315223636.
39 E. David Klonsky, Boaz Y. Saffer, and Craig J. Bryan, “Ideation-to-Action Theories of Suicide: A Conceptual and Empirical Update,” Current Opinion in Psychology 22 (August 2018): 38-43, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.07.020.
40 Rory C. O'Connor and Matthew K. Nock, “The Psychology of Suicidal Behaviour,” Lancet Psychiatry 1, no. 1 (2014): 73-85, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70222-6.
41 Robert I. Simon, “Suicide Rehearsals: A High-Risk Psychiatric Emergency,” Current Psychiatry 11, no. 7 (July 2012): 29-32, https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/64767/depression/suicide-rehearsals-high-risk-psychiatric-emergency.
42 Phillip N. Smith and Kelly C. Cukrowicz, “Capable of Suicide: A Functional Model of the Acquired Capability Component of the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 40, no. 3 (June 2010): 266-275, https://doi.org/10.1521/suli.2010.40.3.266.