Lethality Indicators

Lethality: The potential to kill or cause death

Every year approximately 4,500 women are killed by their partners in the United States.

A woman’s risk of being murdered by her partner is greater than by a stranger.

While it is true that all batterers are dangerous, some are more likely to kill than others, and some are more likely to kill at specific times. Below we have some lethality prediction factors for you to consider. We believe the likelihood of homicide is greater when these factors are present. The greater the number of indicators that the batterer demonstrates or the “greater the intensity” of indicators, the greater the likelihood of a life-threatening attack. Please remember that it is very possible a batterer may be lethal without demonstrating any of these indicators.

“Ownership” of the battered partner.

The batterer who says “Death before divorce!” or “You belong to me and will never belong to another!” or “If I can’t have you nobody will!” may be stating his fundamental belief that you have no right to life separate from him. A batterer who believes he is absolutely entitled to a woman’s services, obedience and loyalty, no matter what, may be life-endangering.

Centrality of the partner.

A man who idolizes his partner, or who depends heavily on her to organize and sustain his life, or who has isolated himself from all other community, may retaliate against a partner who decides to end the relationship. He rationalizes that her “betrayal” justifies his lethal “retaliation.”

Depression.

Where a batterer has been acutely depressed and sees little hope for moving beyond the depression, he may be a candidate for homicide and suicide. Research shows that many men who are hospitalized for depression have homicidal fantasies directed at family members.

Repeated intervention by law enforcement.

Partner or spousal homicide almost always occurs in a context of historical violence. Prior intervention by to the police may indicate elevated risk of life-threatening conduct.

Escalation of risk taking.

A less obvious indicator of increasing danger may be the sharp escalation of personal risk undertaken by a batterer; when a batterer begins to act without regard to the legal or social consequences that previously constrained his violence, the chances of lethal assault increase significantly.

Threats of homicide or suicide.

The batterer who has threatened to kill his (ex)partner, himself, the children or her relatives must be considered extremely dangerous.

Fantasies of homicide or suicide.

The more the batterer has developed a fantasy about who, how, when and/or where to kill, the more dangerous he may be. The batterer who has previously acted out part of a homicide or suicide fantasy may be invested in killing as a “solution to his problems”.

Weapons.

When a batterer possesses, collects, or is obsessed with weapons and/or has used them or has threatened to use them in the past in his assaults on women, the children or himself, increases his potential for lethal assault. If a batterer has a history of arson or the threat of arson, fire should be considered a weapon.

Timing.

When a batterer believes that he is about to lose his (ex)partner or when he concludes that she is permanently leaving him; if he cannot envision life without her, this may be when he chooses to kill. That is not to say that all batterers kill when they conclude that the battered woman is separating from him. Some kill long before they have any idea that the battered woman may be thinking about leaving. So, it is not safe to assume that because she hasn’t made plans to leave, that the batterer will not be dangerous. In one study of spousal homicide, over half the men were separated from their victims when they murdered them (Bernard et al, 1982). Women are most likely to be murdered when attempting to report abuse or to leave an abusive relationship (Sonkin et al, 1985; Browne, 1987).

History of antisocial behavior.

A batterer who has demonstrated aggressive behavior to the general public such as bar fights, gang related violence, job related violence, vandalism, repeated unlawful behavior, or illegal occupation is likely to be more dangerous.

Hostage-taking.

A hostage-taker is at high risk of inflicting homicide. Between 75% and 90% of all hostage takings in the United States are related to domestic violence situations.

Drugs and Alcohol.

Men with a history of problems with drugs and/or alcohol show a higher risk. In addition, regardless of their drug and/or alcohol history, intoxication at the time of assault shows significant risk to partners.

Violence in his family of origin.

The more severe the violence either experienced personally, or observed, in the family of origin, the more the risk.

Cruelty to animals.

Many battered women have testified to their experience with batterers who neglect or abuse pets, farm animals or wild animals, or force them or their children to do so. Consider this as a risk factor.

This information was gathered primarily from Barbara Hart and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

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