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

5. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

The treatment of intimate partner violence by criminal justice actors has been a controversial social issue, particularly since the early 1970s when feminist and grassroot organizations drew attention to the prevalence of intimate violence and, in particular, violence against women by male intimate partners. Since that time, the criminal justice system and its representatives have been criticized for their treatment of this type of violence and, as a result, numerous changes have taken place both within the community and in the criminal justice system with respect to how social and legal institutions respond to intimate violence. Despite the increased attention, little empirical research in Canada or any other country has sought to examine how the criminal justice processing of violent crime and, in particular, responses to violence between intimates has changed over time as a result. As a first step toward this goal, this study focused on two research questions: (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?

The findings in this study demonstrate that changes in the way intimate violence is treated have occurred in the criminal justice system during the past three decades, paralleling increasing public concern about intimate violence as a serious social issue. More specifically, the results presented here showed that those accused of killing intimate partners were treated differently at some stages of the criminal process compared to those who killed other types of victims. However, this differential treatment appears to have abated somewhat over time (see also Dawson, 2004). That is, what many have interpreted as more lenient treatment of intimate lethal violence by the courts was evident in the earlier period of the study, but not in the more recent period. One might tentatively conclude, then, that the role of intimacy in criminal law has changed over time, at least within this large urban jurisdiction. More definitive conclusions, however, await future research because of several limitations that have been outlined above. Moreover, the results presented here raise at least as many questions as they answer and future research that addresses these research and data limitations is required before we can achieve an adequate understanding of the role played by intimacy in criminal law. Several important questions for future research are discussed briefly below.

5.1 Intimacy and the guilty plea process

First, how do we explain the association between intimacy and the plea resolution process? What is it about cases of intimate partner homicide and/or the accused persons involved that seem to make them or their cases more amenable to plea resolutions than other types of cases? While the subject of plea resolutions or the plea-bargaining process is not new, little research exists on the subject in Canada (DOJ, 2003). Some U.S.-based research, however, describes a number of possible explanations as to why pleas may be negotiated in particular cases. For instance, guilty pleas may occur because of the high risks often associated with trials for both the defence and the prosecution (Mather, 1979). Defence lawyers may try to reduce such risks by negotiating a plea to a reduced charge. Alternatively, the prosecution may perceive a guilty plea to be a viable option if there are mitigating circumstances surrounding the killing or if it is difficult to prove the element of intent required for a murder conviction (Mather, 1979). Moreover, it may be that when the initial charge was laid, the investigation was not complete and, thus, as more information became available, the prosecution realized that a murder charge was not appropriate nor would it be successful and, consequently, entered into a plea resolution at that point thereby securing a conviction (DOJ, 2003).

Because of the private nature of plea negotiations, however, the public has no way of knowing what has taken place or why it was deemed appropriate to accept a guilty plea in a particular case or for a particular accused (DOJ, 2003). It may be, then, that the public would be more accepting of plea resolutions if they understood more about the reasons behind them. As a result, one of the recommendations outlined in the report by the Department of Justice (2003) was that research be undertaken on the subject of plea-resolutions in homicide cases. While it was hoped that information documenting reasons for guilty pleas would be possible in this study, such information is not systematically documented in case files and, to date, case files have been the primary source of information for criminal justice researchers examining court outcomes (see Box 7 and 8). It is important to note here, though, that the compilation of documents related to the criminal processing of homicide cases (and all criminal cases) does not occur for the purposes of criminal justice research and, thus, this is not meant as a criticism of the criminal justice system or its actors. It is meant, however, to highlight that researchers need to incorporate more innovative data collection techniques that can capture the detail required for understanding the plea resolution process. As part of this, increased collaboration between criminal justice agencies and researchers is required. Until then, however, the reasons behind such decisions will remain speculative. New techniques or mechanisms for collecting criminal justice data would also help address another obstacle that is common in criminal justice research discussed next.

Box 7. Accused persons who pleaded guilty: Initial Charges

Case #9940

The male victim in this case had been drinking at a neighborhood bar earlier in the evening and, as he was walking home, he met two women in an alley. One of the women – the accused – claimed that the victim approached her and asked her for sexual favors, mistaking her for a prostitute. The female accused pushed the victim away and he fell and hit his head. He was not killed instantly and managed to flag a taxi to take him home. His family noticed his injuries and took him to the hospital where he died a few days later. Both the accused and the victim had been drinking at the time of the incident and had histories of substance abuse. The accused was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to that charge and was sentenced to two years less one day.

Case #9703

The male accused in this case, a paranoid schizophrenic, pushed the female victim into the path of an oncoming subway train. On the day of the killing, the accused, who was a psychiatric patient living at a group facility, had moved out of the facility on the morning of the homicide. Apparently, he had tried to get social assistance, but was told he would have to wait and was apparently frustrated by the delay. He proceeded to the subway where he later told police he had decided to push any woman who fit a certain description and happened to be on the platform into an oncoming train. He waited for two trains before he pushed the victim. The defendant was charged with second-degree murder and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 15 years.

Case #9163

The female victim and the male accused had worked together for about six months serving refreshments to patrons at an establishment. On the day of the killing, the accused stabbed the victim in the neck during an argument over coffee. Prior to the incident, there was such hostility between the victim and the accused that management became concerned and decided that other arrangements would have to be made so they came into contact less often. On the day of the attack, when the accused arrived at work, the victim made a gesture that signified she had won their dispute. After about five minutes, the accused picked up a knife and stabbed the victim in front of witnesses. He made no attempt to escape, waiting for the police. It was alleged that both the accused and the victim had received outpatient treatment for psychiatric problems. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but found guilty at trial of manslaughter and sentenced to five-years.

Case #9042

The male victim and the female accused decided to kill themselves and had left notes for their family, documenting their intentions. The female accused was to inject the male victim with an overdose of drugs and then inject herself. Adhering to their plans, she injected the victim and then herself, but she awoke later that same day to find the victim dead. The accused did not mention the victim’s death when she later went to work, but a friend discovered the body the next day and notified the police. The accused was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to that charge and was sentenced to two years less one day.

Box 8. Accused persons who pleaded guilty: Reduced Charges

Case #8730

The female victim in this case had suffered long-term mental problems and had frequently been an inpatient at a local psychiatric hospital where she was staying at the time of her death. On the morning of the killing, the victim came upon the male accused on the street where it was alleged by the accused that they discussed a sexual act. They proceeded into a nearby alley to have sex. Police indicated, however, that the accused had accosted the victim on the street, hauled her into the alleyway where he sexually assaulted and strangled her. The victim’s face was so badly damaged that she was unrecognizable. The accused was arrested later that day as he was attempting to assault a second woman. The accused was charged with first-degree murder, but he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 12 years.

Case #9629

The female accused and her friends arrived at a bar, but there was no seating available. The accused approached the bar, removed the male victim’s belongings from one of the barstools, and threw them on the floor. An argument developed between the two and it turned into a minor shoving match before others separated them. When the victim later left the restaurant, the accused and her friends followed him outside and another confrontation developed that turned into a physical fight. During the fight, the accused produced a knife and stabbed the victim, who immediately collapsed to the ground. The accused and her friends fled the scene. A bystander called the police and witnesses later identified the accused. It was alleged that the victim was mentally handicapped and often pestered people in bars after he had been drinking. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years.

Case #9705

On the night of the killing, the male accused had been drinking with a friend at a bar. He was depressed because a woman that he was interested in had recently rejected him. On his way home from the bar, the accused broke into the male victim’s home. The victim awoke to find the accused standing at the foot of his bed. At that point, the accused crawled onto the bed and started slashing at the male victim, killing him. A female occupant tried to escape down the stairs, but the accused grabbed her, stabbing her repeatedly, but she was not fatally injured. Another male occupant called 911, but the accused heard him and fled. The accused lived in an apartment building just behind the victims’ home, but they did not know each other. The accused later indicated that he had been on a three-day drinking binge, prompted by the loss of his girlfriend and indicated that he was inclined to lose his temper when he had been drinking. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder (and attempted murder for the female victim), but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 17 years.

Case #9708

The male victim and the male accused were drinking at the home of the accused with some others, including the victim’s brother. An argument broke out because the victim allegedly made an inappropriate gesture to the girlfriend of the accused. The argument escalated into a fight at which point the accused got a knife and stabbed the victim in the chest. When the police arrived, they found the accused with blood on his clothing standing outside the elevator in the apartment building. He told them that he had been involved in a fight and confessed to stabbing the victim. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment beyond the one year he had already spent in pre-trial custody.

Case #9718

The male accused and an associate went to see the male victim who was an acquaintance. The accused allegedly planned to get some money from the victim by saying he had access to a quantity of drugs for him to purchase. While there, the victim became upset with the accused and started to shove him. At the time, both were standing at the top of a set of stairs that lead to the basement. As the victim started to descend the stairs, the accused pushed him in the back, sending him down the stairs. Both the accused and his associate fled the scene. The victim’s mother was home at the time and heard noises that led her to check the basement area. She found her son, bleeding and unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, and called police. The accused in this case was charged with manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, but guilty to the lesser charge of criminal negligence causing death. He received a conditional sentence of 18 months, 150 hours community service and 18 months probation.

Case #8436

On the evening of the killing, both the male accused and the female victim were at a local tavern together. When the victim left, the accused followed her out to the rear of a nearby building where he beat her with a brick and then returned to the tavern. He later met a family member of the victim and took him to where the victim lay dead. Her clothes were disheveled and her breasts and genital area were exposed. The police were called. The accused alleged that the victim insulted him and spit on him in the bar. They were had both been drinking excessively. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Case #9413

Both the male victim and the female accused were allegedly drug dealers who, about one month prior to the killing, had a dispute over the price of crack. During the dispute, the victim slashed the unarmed accused. On the day of the killing, the accused lured the victim to a rooming house where the accused attacked the victim, plunging a knife into his heart. He died en route to the hospital. Witnesses indicated that Nadia had frequently threatened to kill the victim to get even with him for disfiguring her. Police recovered the weapon used by the accused in a garbage container behind the rooming house. Both the accused and the victim had been drinking the night of the killing and both had a history of substance abuse, primarily crack cocaine. The accused was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 2.5 years.

Case #9526

The male victim and the female accused had been involved romantically for about eight months. On the day of the killing, both were intoxicated when an argument broke out that lead to the accused dangling the victim over their balcony. A family member of the accused tried to intervene, but was pushed away by the accused, who then shoved the victim over the edge of the balcony to his death. When the police arrived, the accused alleged that the victim had committed suicide. Other family members eventually revealed that the accused had been responsible for the victim’s death. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years.

Case #9707

The female victim and the male accused in this case were married. The husband stabbed his wife to death while their two daughters watched. When the police arrived, they found that the accused had attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the chest, but his injuries were not fatal. In the six months prior to the killing, the victim had called the police twice to report that the accused had assaulted her. At the time of the killing, he was under a probation order to avoid contact with the victim. Earlier, assault charges had been dismissed against him when the victim failed to appear to testify. The accused was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 13 years.

Case #0101

On the evening of the killing, the female victim and the male accused were preparing to go to bed for the night when they began to argue. The argument went on for some time, but stopped suddenly, according to neighbors who lived nearby. Some time later, the elderly accused called a male family member. When the family member arrived at the scene, the victim was found dead as a result of a knife wound and the accused had superficial wounds to his neck. Later, at the hospital where he was treated, the accused admitted to stabbing his wife because of family problems, including the fact that she talked too much and scolded him too much. The victim allegedly suffered from dementia. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 5.5 years in addition to 7.5 months of pre-trial custody.

Case #8404

The female victim had arrived from out of the country a little over a week before the killing for an arranged marriage with the male accused. She had experienced a difficult time trying to adjust during her stay and decided to return to her home country and not follow through on the arranged marriage. The accused argued with the victim over her decision and the argument escalated to the point that the accused hit the victim and then strangled her on the day they were to be married. The accused fled, but was apprehended the same day. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Case #9202

The male accused in this case was allegedly jealous and possessive with the female victim. He called her constantly at work, according to her co-workers. On the day of the killing, they argued because the victim wanted to end the relationship and she had asked the accused to move out. He got angry and stabbed her 36 times. The children were at home and witnessed the attack. After the killing, the accused telephoned a family member who notified the police. By the time the police arrived, the accused had attempted suicide. He was still conscious, however, and confessed to killing the victim after which he was taken to the hospital for treatment. Three days before the fatal incident, the police were called to the couple’s address because the accused had assaulted the victim. Neighbors indicated that there were ongoing problems in the relationship and that was why the victim was trying to end it. The accused was charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 12.5 years.

Case #8510

The female accused in this case had apparently become increasingly angry over a number of demands her husband was making on her, including demands for sex. On the day of the killing, the accused claims she lost control of herself, exploding in anger, striking the victim 14 times in the head with a meat cleaver. She then hid the body outside and it was not discovered until more than a week later. Before marrying, the couple had worked together at a factory in their native country. They continued to keep in touch through correspondence after the victim and his family moved to Canada. The accused came to Canada after they married. The marriage was never consummated, a fact that upset the husband and his parents. The accused had allegedly been making inquiries about how to get a divorce, but found out that if she left her husband, her immigration status might be affected. The accused had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric problems. The accused was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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