Criminal Justice Outcomes in Intimate and Non-intimate Partner Homicide Cases


Are some types of violent offenders treated differently by the courts because of the relationship they share or shared with their victims? Many people believe that the answer to this question is ‘yes’ – that offenders who victimize people with whom they are or have been intimate receive lighter sanctions for their crimes than offenders who share more distant relationships with their victims. Some also believe that this ought to be the case (Miller et al., 1991; Rapaport, 1991, 1994). That is, violence between intimates is typically perceived to be the archetype of anger-driven or expressive crime because of the intensity of intimate relationships and the accompanying interactions (Messner & Tardiff, 1985; Sampson, 1987; Parker & Smith, 1979; Smith & Parker, 1980; Loftin, 1986; Maxfield, 1989; Rojek & Williams, 1993). Thus, an offender who victimizes an intimate partner is often seen to be less culpable for his or her crime. In contrast, killings between those who are not intimate are more often presumed to have an instrumental character and to occur in the context of violence committed for gain (Block, 1981; Riedel, 1987; Rojek & Williams, 1993). The findings of research to date, however, have not allowed for any conclusive statement regarding the role of intimacy in criminal law and, until recently, there has been no systematic analysis of this question in Canada (see Dawson, 2003a, 2004). This represents a significant gap in the research given that the degree of intimacy that exists between an accused and his or her victim has long been considered a key explanatory variable in research on social and legal responses to violence (Decker, 1993; Black, 1976, 1993; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1988; Horwitz, 1990).

In 2003, the dearth of research on the role of intimacy in criminal law was highlighted by a report released by Department of Justice Canada entitled, Report on Sentencing for Manslaughter in Cases Involving Intimate Relationships. The Federal-Provincial-Territorial (FPT) Ministers Responsible for Justice had requested the report after a sentencing decision in Prince Edward Island outraged residents there, prompting a protest and a petition that called for stiffer penalties in such cases.[1] The decision – R. v. Sheppard – involved accused Fred Sheppard, who had been charged with second-degree murder for beating to death his female common-law partner, Kimberly Ann Byrne, in their home in Cardigan, Prince Edward Island. Sheppard later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison before being eligible for parole. Noting that statistical information is limited on criminal justice in this country, the 2003 report outlined a number of recommendations, one of which emphasized that Canadian research needs to look more closely at criminal justice outcomes in cases of intimate partner homicide. This study responds to that recommendation by comparing criminal justice outcomes in cases of intimate partner homicide to outcomes in cases of non-intimate partner homicide.

Two general research questions are addressed:

  1. Do those accused of killing intimate partners receive different treatment in the criminal justice system compared to those accused of killing victims with whom they shared more distant relationships?
  2. Has the role of intimacy in criminal law changed over time?

Intimate partner homicides are defined in this report as those that occur between current or former legal spouses, common-law partners or those who were dating. Non-intimate partner homicides are defined as those that occur between family members (not including spouses), friends, acquaintances and strangers. Before describing the present study, the next section discusses why intimacy might affect criminal justice decision-making and what is currently known about the role of intimacy in criminal law by summarizing research that has examined how the victim-accused relationship – the best available proxy for intimacy – affects criminal justice outcomes in cases of violent crime.

[1] According to media reports, residents of Prince Edward Island were also upset about the reduction in charge from second-degree murder to manslaughter.

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