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Murders: History of Family Violence

June 08, 1986|JANICE MALL

A new USC study of women accused of murder has found that most such crimes represent a perpetuation of family violence.

Nancy Kaser-Boyd, a USC clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and director of psychology at Ingleside Hospital in Rosemead, conducted a study of 35 female murder suspects who had been referred by judges for pretrial psychological examination. These represented about half of the female homicide suspects referred by Los Angeles Superior Court for evaluation between 1978 and 1984.

All but one of the suspects had a childhood history of family violence or neglect; 70% of the murders were acts of family violence, committed against family members or intimates.

Rarely Occurs

"Murder by women is not common. It rarely occurs outside a certain set of circumstances," Kaser-Boyd said. "The pattern that emerged among our study subjects was a history of victimization, plus some combination of factors like drug or alcohol abuse that reduces coping ability. At some point, something snaps and they act to protect themselves or their self-esteem."

The findings suggest that there would be very few homicides committed by women if family violence were reduced. The greatest number of women suspects--36%--were accused of killing their husbands or boyfriends, and three-quarters of these women said their mates had repeatedly battered and threatened them. Another 30% were accused of killing their children, 30% of killing strangers or casual acquaintances, 6% siblings and 6% parents.

Very few had previous records of violent offenses. In none of the cases was profit a motive.

Those who were accused of killing their children or their parents were the most seriously disturbed, Kaser-Boyd said, pointing out that psychotic disorders and child abuse are common among people (men as well as women) who were themselves abused as children.

Killers of Strangers

Those who killed strangers or acquaintances exhibited no pattern. One, for example, involved a mentally ill woman who killed a victim by setting fire to a house; another shot someone who intruded in her yard. Drug or alcohol abuse was a problem for more than half the women in the study. Most also were undercut in their abilities to cope with their lives by below-average IQs, fewer than 10 years of education and the lack of stable jobs.

In a follow-up to the study, it was found that most of the women had committed the crimes of which they were accused. Only 5% were acquitted. Forty percent pleaded guilty to lesser charges such as manslaughter, and of these two-thirds received probation rather than prison sentences. About 30% were found not competent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

While less than one-fifth of the homicides nationally are committed by women, these represent a substantial number--there are some 15,000 to 18,000 homicides a year. The numbers would be reduced if family violence, particularly child abuse, were eliminated, Kaser-Boyd said. She recommended measures including a tougher stand on family violence by police and courts and increased funding for social services to protect children.

"I see how overstressed the department of social services and the courts are," Kaser-Boyd said, and also that despite California's good law allocating funds for battered women's shelters, there still isn't enough space to meet the need.

However, she said, "If we think about reducing violence in our society, we will have to reduce violence in the home. People aren't born violent unless they have some brain disorder. People learn violence."

Yi-Li Wu, who has just received a bachelor's degree in political science with high honors from UC Berkeley, has also received one of 10 prestigious internships awarded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. She is the only Californian to receive an internship this year. The select internships involve six months of researching foreign policy issues.

A graduate of James Monroe High School in Sepulveda, Wu plans a career in diplomacy or international relations. She has a good start as an internationalist. She has studied five languages--Italian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and French--lived and studied in France and Italy and won her internship for an essay she wrote on the United States' role in South Africa as well as for her academic achievement, which includes election to Phi Beta Kappa, and interest in international affairs.

"Peace is the issue that can encompass all levels of interaction among countries, including arms control, trade and foreign policy," Wu said.

Wu is also a fencer, served as president and team captain for UC Berkeley's Fencing Club and recently qualified for the Pacific Coast championships in women's foil and women's epee.

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