1999. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(4), 361-370.
The Psychology of Suicide-Murder and the Death Penalty
Katherine van Wormer, MSSW, Ph.D
Professor of Social Work
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa, U.S.A.
Chuk Odiah, M.Sc, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Social Work
University of Northern Iowa
Correspondence to be sent to
Katherine van Wormer
The Psychology of Suicide-Murder and the Death Penalty
ABSTRACT. To understand the dynamics of individuals who seek or are attracted to the death penalty as a form of suicide, we first must probe the dynamics of a related matter, the so-called murder-suicide syndrome. Following a review of the literature on murderers who killed themselves shortly after committing murder, a sketch of 22 cases of murderers in the U.S. who killed in hopes of getting themselves executed, is provided. In recognition of the primacy of suicide in some forms of homicide, the term suicide-murder is used instead of murder-suicide.
A paper presented at the World Conference on Violence and the Future of Society, Dublin, Ireland, August 20th-23rd, 1997.
This paper focuses on two of the most severe forms of violence -- homicide by an individual and homicide by the state. The link between these two seemingly disparate phenomena, at least within the context of this paper, is suicide. This article will be looking at a peculiar variety of murder, at murder as an extended form of suicide. That some would willingly inflict harm on others as a way of ensuring their own death, sometimes turning the gun on others in order to get up the nerve to pull the trigger on themselves, sometimes killing people so that the state would execute them: this is the case to be made in this paper. This phenomenon is referred to here as suicide-murder. Suicide, in other words, will not be viewed not as the consequence of murder but, rather, as its cause.
The barbarity of murder, whether inflicted by the state or by some individual gone mad is not the subject of this article. Nevertheless, a few words about execution will put it in historic and global context. Execution like ordinary murder can be conceived as an emotion-ridden act that is a rejection of life and destruction of something sacred. While all of Western Europe and much of South America have abolished this archaic form of punishment, numerous Islamic states and much of Asia continue to execute people for crimes (Hood, 1996). In the United States, over 400 individuals have been executed since the death penalty was restored in 1976.
Violence breeds violence, a fact borne out in crime statistics. The average homicide rate in the twelve states without the death penalty, for example, is considerably lower than the average homicide rate in the 38 states where execution is legal. The effect is interactive. A high crime rate leads to a cry for execution; execution itself may promote further violence. The suggestibility aspect of violence is poignantly illustrated in the suicide of a twelve year old Italian boy: Newspaper accounts from the Vatican decried gruesome executions in America (a hanging in Delaware and a firing-squad execution in Utah) the television reports of which incited a sensitive but affectionate child in Noceto, Italy to hang himself. The matter of the violence-inducing aspect of the death penalty will be addressed at the end of this article, following an analysis of the suicide-murder configuration.
When Thomas Hamilton, a thwarted scoutmaster with an obsessive interest in guns and little boys, committed the mass murder of a whole classroom of children in Dunblane, Scotland, the whole world was horrified. Hamilton's last shot was through his own brain.
In the United States, at about the same time, the Cunanan murder spree which was launched against successful gay men, filled the air waves. A seemingly rich, flamboyant homosexual playboy, Andrew Cunanan, craved attention. Tellingly, his high school class had voted him "most likely to be remembered" (Thomas, 1997). Following the climactic killing, the murder of the fashion guru, Gianni Versace, Cunanan hid in a houseboat awaiting his inevitable capture. Upon discovery, he shot himself through the mouth.
Both of these cases were world news events. More typical are these newspaper headlines: "New York Mother Throws Her Three Children from Roof of 14-Floor Building, then Jumps to Her Death" (Jet, 1996); "Father Who Killed Kids Asks for Death Penalty" (Associated Press, 1997a); "Relatives Blame Family Troubles for Shooting Spree" (Associated Press, 1997b: A2). The description of this last tragedy is noteworthy: The man accused of killing three people at a bank and or everyone else to sing the Lord's Prayer with him was upset by family problems and wanted by the police, relatives said. H was very suicidal. He didn't want to kill himself. He wanted someone else to do it for him". The last two sentences are placed in italics for emphasis: The inability to kill oneself directly is a theme transcending the majority of suicide-murder cases.
A review of the literature on multiple murder reveals little systematic research despite widespread media interest (Gresswell and Hollin, 1994) and even less systematic attention to murder as a means of effecting suicide. (See van Wormer, 1997, chapter 11.)
For the sake of organization, the material in the literature review to follow is divided into three key categories. Each category reflects one component of social work's holistic, biopsychosocial approach to human behavior.
The Murder-Suicide: Brief Literary Review
Despite the impetus throughout the social and behavioral sciences to consider organic factors in violent behavior, an extensive Internet search revealed very little of substance relating organic factors to murder-suicide. In his comprehensive study of self-destructive violence, James Gilligan (1992) hypothesized that testosterone played a role in this form of aggression. His subjects were young imprisoned males who were at once suicidal and violent toward others. Bourgeois (1991), similarly, found a relationship among low levels of serotonin in the brain, impulsivity, and suicide and/or murder. In a research study more specifically related to murder-suicide, Rosenbaum (1990) discovered the murder-suicide perpetrators to be vastly different from perpetrators of homicide alone. Whereas murderer-suicides were found to be highly depressed and overwhelmingly men, other murderers were not generally depressed and more likely to include women in their ranks.
The Psychology of Murder-Suicide
In a retrospective study of homicide-suicides between Australian adult sexual intimates, Easteal (1994) concluded that there were two subtypes of murder-suicide -- elderly partners facing deteriorating health conditions and males who were estranged from their female partners and pathologically possessive of them. It is the latter category of murder-suicide which is the concern of this article.
In Iowa a spate of murder-suicides have occurred over the past few years (Clayworth & Erb, 1998). The significance of the wave of spousal murder-suicides in Iowa (representing over one-quarter of the total homicide rate for the year) is that in every case the man did the killing; the killing all seemed to have emerged in conjunction with marital break-up.
The theory linking homicide with suicide is not new. Psychoanalytical literature, in fact, has long proposed a link between homicidal and suicidal tendencies. Freud’s extensive work on the unconscious, however flawed, helped students of psychology, such as Freud’s granddaughter, to see that “surfaces mirror only one aspect of human motives, and that each visible aspect of human behavior carries within it, its very opposite” (Freud, S., 1998: 459). A major contribution was Freud’s notion of the death instinct. This notion is concisely summarized in a book on the social reality of death by Charmaz (1980): In Freud’s view, the death instincts exist in conflict with life instincts in a similar way as the asocial id is in conflict with the socially imbued superego. The death instincts then become mediated by the ego into aggressive acts outside the self.
This behavior is construed by Freud as normal behavior. When there is severe repression of natural instincts due to early childhood abuse, however, following Freudian logic, one may theorize that the death instinct could emerge in a twisted form. Ernest Becker (1973), whose theories on the human notion of death is strongly psychoanalytical, views the fear of death as a universal phenomenon, a fear which is repressed in the unconscious and of which people are largely unaware. The fear of death, nevertheless, can move individuals toward heroism, but also to scapegoating as well. Failed attempts to achieve heroism, according to this view, can lead to mental illness and/or antisocial behavior.
The relationship between murder and suicide has been elaborated upon by Menninger (1938). Following Freud’s conceptualization of suicide or self-murder, Menninger argued that suicide involves the wish to kill, to be killed, and to die. Those prone to suicide, as Menninger further suggests, are immature individuals fixated at early stages of development.
Suicide by cop
A second major literature source for the “death wish” comes from law enforcement journals. The phenomenon of “suicide by cop” has long been written about in the police and forensic journals (Jenet & Segal, 1985). This expression, “suicide by cop,” which is well known to law enforcement officers, refers to individuals who deliberately try to get the police to kill them. Hostage taking, domestic violence and workplace violence are recognized as the most commonly used situations to provoke or lure the police officers into using deadly force (Geller & Scott, 1992). Consequently, the police are being trained today to exercise restraint by learning to recognize the characteristics that may help them avoid engaging people in suicidal show-downs. In a study to determine specific situational factors that may discern “suicide by cop” from other situations involving police use of deadly force, Kennedy, Homant, and Hupp (1998) have filtered out the following high risk situations. Individuals:
a) May show suicidal motivation, either by word or gesture or they may confront the police with a fake or dangerous weapon in spite of having no means of retreat, in essence compelling the police to kill.
b) May seem distressed or, contrarily, act as if they do not care whether or not the officers kill them; they may make a vain or desperate breakout attempt.
c) May or may not have had suicidal motivation at the outset, but caught in a robbery situation, suspects may get shot after turning toward police officers with a weapon.
Providing the results obtained in several projects regarding this phenomenon, Kennedy, Homant & Hupp (1998) further observed that the notion of clandestine suicide exemplifies the intricacies of suicide by police. Many suspicious deaths which give the appearance of normal or random causes, according to these writers, might actually have been orchestrated as a path to suicide. Other researchers similarly have noted the suicidal ideation in hostage taking (Bulter, Leitenberg, & Fuselier, 1995), workplace violence (Duncan, 1995; Fox & Levin, 1994), and domestic violence situations (Hamilton, 1996; Kramer and Black, 1998).
Haycock's (1991) analysis of the psycho dynamics of the sociopathic males who commit suicide in prison is informative. Significantly, his work calls into question the widely accepted belief that sociopaths or persons with antisocial personalities rarely are suicidal. Haycock convincingly pointed to the high rate of prison suicides, especially in Western Europe and Australia, to refute the notion that violence and suicide are mutually exclusive. In his review of relevant research, Haycock concluded that the evidence clearly indicates that those convicted of homicide carry a greatly increased risk for suicide. Suicide rates among lifers and persons on death row are notoriously high.
In another compelling study of violence in a male prison population, Gilligan (1992; 42), a former prison mental health service director cited earlier, provided a graphic and insightful description of his charges: The men I know already feel so spiritually dead that they long for physical death as well. For many, the only means capable of expressing in a final catharsis the rage that is within them, so as to settle at last their accounts with the world, is the fantasy of a shoot-out with the police... If anything, death is a promise of peace, which makes it understandable that executions and capital punishment encourage more murders than they deter...
Palermo (1994) leads the reader even deeper into the psyche of the suicidal murderer, into the mind of the jealous-paranoid perpetrator. The twin nature of murder and suicide are recognized in Palermo's concept, extended suicide. It is plausible to assume, argued Palermo, that the murderer, who is usually depressed and paranoid, harbors a primary suicidal thought. Such a man does not feel, therefore, that he is killing an autonomous entity but, rather, an extension of himself. The murder-suicide, according to this conceptualization, then becomes the expression of an extended suicide.
Though Palermo did not discuss women as perpetrators of this sort of violence, it seems evident that women who kill their small children and then themselves are far more suicidal than murderous. A later section of this article discusses mothers who take their children with them on their venture toward death.
An analysis of the London Times' reports of murder (1887-1990) by Danson and Soothill (1996) reveals a total incidence of six percent of 2,274 cases of murder followed by suicide in the United Kingdom. Around the turn of the century this figure was approximately one in three. This study supports the view that murder-suicides are mostly family affairs, especially in cases of female perpetrators. There is a much higher proportion of British male murder-suicides, in general, however, with males much more likely than females to commit their crimes with guns. Overwhelmingly the women committing murder-suicide in the study tended to kill their children and then themselves. Men, on the other hand, tended to kill their spouses or partners. Compared to Britain, in the United States, the homicide rate, probably related to the availability of guns, is, of course, much higher. And, as Easteal (1994) demonstrates, one third of spousal homicides in the U.S. and Canada end in suicide. Guns are by far the most common weapon used in these crimes. One could speculate that if you shoot someone, it is relatively easy to then turn the gun on yourself.
If you stab or strangle someone, however, suicide becomes much more difficult. In any case, the high rate of spousal murder-suicides is consistent with the murder-as-extended-suicide argument of Palermo.
Notably, in 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reviewed the epidemiology, patterns, and determinants of murder-suicide and made a strong case for the need for systematic data gathering so that prevention strategies can be developed (Marzuk, Tardiff, and Hirsch, 1992). Although there is no standardized definition of murder-suicide, the JAMA report proposed that the term murder-suicide be restricted to a situation in which the suicide follows the homicide by one week at the most. Extrapolating from the test statistics available, it is probable that in the United States the murder-suicide represents 1.5 percent of all suicides and 5 percent of all homicides annually, according to this review. In Denmark, on the other hand, 42 percent of homicides are of this variety.
JAMA’s summary of data on the mother/child murder-suicide indicated that only a tiny fraction of mothers who commit infanticide kill themselves. Mothers who kill their children typically suffocate, drown, or stab them; firearms are rarely used. The depressed, suicidal mother may psychotically perceive her child as an extension of herself. A form of "deluded altruism" may be the motive, according to this report.
The authors will now present their theoretical explanation of suicide-murder, an explanation not provided in the literature. As a starting point, consider the case of a man who has little regard for himself or others, is bent on suicide but unable to get up the nerve to do it. Somehow he must set the stage so as to force himself to perform the forbidden act. A man who has been rejected by his wife may readily sacrifice her in the process of preparing for the final irrevocable act. On seeing his wife's dead body, he will have no recourse but to pull the trigger on himself as well. The same goes for the mother and her children. Having killed them, she ensures the likelihood of her own demise. Sometimes, however, she fails to follow through. The well-publicized case of Susan Smith who drowned her children in the car is a case in point. In police and psychiatric reports, Smith consistently stated that her plan was to take her own life afterwards, to commit suicide (Morganthor, 1995).
More research is needed to support this theory that in suicide-murder cases, the primary driving force is suicide. Invaluable research can be done through interviews with those who botched up the suicide part of the suicide-murder. Do such persons kill another or others in order to more easily get the nerve to kill themselves? This is the key question which cries out for further exploration.
In summary, persons setting out to commit what we prefer to call suicide-murder are following through on a carefully premeditated plan. Most individuals attracted to suicide-murder would not seek the death penalty, an eventuality that takes years to achieve and is rarely successful. The motives apparent in the examples of suicide-murder discussed thus far, nevertheless, can inform one’s understanding of the motives involved in seeking a suicide in another form, the form of execution by the state.
Use of Execution as State Assisted Suicide
Van Wormer (1995a, 1995b) has written elsewhere of the strange paradox that punishment designed to curb violence may actually promote it. A second paradox apparent in this research is that the revenge motive inherent in the death penalty may be thwarted by criminals who favor execution over life imprisonment. Evidence for both these absurdities was presented in the form of case histories obtained from a variety of sources -- from psychiatric case studies, legal literature, newspaper accounts -- of individuals whose criminal behavior seemed geared toward getting themselves executed. A summary of these histories will be provided in the final section of this article.
Based on their survey of the psychiatric and criminal justice literature, the authors have filtered out three categories of behavior in which execution has served as an attraction or an impetus to commit crimes. The three categories are (1) voluntary executions by persons on death row, (2) homicide following a publicized execution, and (3) commission of a crime or crimes as a means toward the end of the execution. The third and most disturbing phenomenon is the concern of this article. The others, because of relevance to the death penalty deterrence issue, will be summarized briefly.
Out of 223 executions between 1976 and 1993, twenty-nine have been consensual or at the inmate's request (Cordes, 1994). Typical examples include men who were clearly suicidal and those who sought an escape from death row or from life in prison.
An earlier study by Strafer (1983) documented sixteen cases of inmates on death row who volunteered for the death penalty, usually by refusing to fight appeals of their cases. Two of these individuals -- Gary Gilmore and James French -- had plotted their deaths long before they arrived at death row, and their circumstances are dealt with under the homicide-as-suicide category. Two other individuals among those requesting execution were found innocent and released! Whether these other inmates had committed "suicide-related murders" or whether they were suicidal due to the pains of imprisonment is difficult to determine from the evidence.
The journal American Lawyer (Siegel, 1993) describes a situation in which the attorney who opposed capital punishment was abiding by his client's wishes for a speedy execution. Thomas Grasso had the option of serving a life sentence in New York, but arranged to be transferred to Oklahoma on a previous murder charge. He would rather be executed than grow old in prison, he said. The risk, according to the article, is that if Grasso did not get his death wish, he would kill again.
Homicide Following Execution
Bowers and Pierce's (1980) widely cited statistical analysis of homicide rates for New York state 1907-1963, revealed that within a month following an execution, two additional homicides (above the normal rate) occurred. These findings provide some indication of the brutalizing effect of the highly publicized execution. Although one cannot readily generalize findings from one part of the United States to another, the implications of this study are staggering: two homicides triggered
by every execution in New York. The case we looked at earlier of the twelve year old Italian boy who hanged himself following news accounts of an American execution illustrates the risks of publicity of violence in inciting further violence.
Homicide as Suicide
Sometimes a person will kill, whether consciously or unconsciously, so that he or she may be
killed in a final act of retribution by the state. A former director of a state department of corrections refers to this phenomenon when he writes, "I know of a number of murder victims who would still be alive if the death penalty had not been in effect" (Keve, 1992:13). Unfortunately for our purposes, no documentation of these cases was provided.
On our own and with the help of anti-death penalty organizations, we have identified 20 cases of individuals who revealed publicly or under psychiatric examination how they plotted and schemed to receive the one irrevocable punishment by the state, the death penalty. The cases are described here briefly.
1. Harston in Kentucky. When van Wormer’s sister was a public defender of Warren County, Kentucky, she assisted her in preparation for a "death case", or a case for which the death penalty could be provided. In fact the defendant as well as the prosecutor both sought the maximum penalty. The lines in the defendant Sherril Harston’s song, composed in the Bowling Green jail cell, say it all:
Now my life is doomed to be
Face to face with the magistrate
For my final destiny
For all eternity
The Electrical Hanging Tree.
Here was a man so bent on death, apparently, that he had killed a young mother and her child, thereby consciously or unconsciously moving himself toward the fate he believed was his. When Harston was given a life sentence instead, he fired his attorney and filed an appeal for a new trial. Once in prison, he threatened to kill again (Citizen Times, 1979).
2. Gilmore in Utah. G. Richard Strafer (1983) and Norman Mailer (1979) have each written about Gary Gilmore as a prime example of one who plotted his own dramatic end. After being paroled from Marion Federal Penitentiary, Gilmore seemed strangely driven to go to Utah where execution was by a firing squad, rather than his home in Oregon, then a non-death-penalty jurisdiction. He fought his attorney for the right to be killed, and through extensive public attention managed to be immortalized in death as he could not be in life.
3. Judy in Indiana. The Encyclopedia of Modern Murder (Wilson and Seaman, 1983) describes the case of Steven Judy in 1980. He committed a rape-murder and then threatened his jury: "You had better put me to death, because next time it might be one of you or your daughter."
4. Dodd in Washington State. In early 1993, Westley Allan Dodd was hanged in the prison at Walla Walla. The New York Times (1993) reported that he stalked and murdered two young boys, strangled a third, and then was arrested while trying to abduct a six-year-old boy from a movie
theater. He readily confessed to the killings, showed pictures of the victims to the police, and insisted on execution by hanging. Several witnesses claimed that he had a religious conversion in his final hour.
5. French in Oklahoma. An older case involved James French. He was convicted in 1958 of murdering a motorist. He testified at his trial that he hoped to be executed. His pleas for the death penalty were to no avail. Sentenced to life in prison, he strangled his cellmate and, when tried on the new murder charge, acknowledged his desire to be electrocuted. The state did so in 1966. French admitted that he had always "chickened out" at the last minute on several suicide attempts (Strafer, 1983; West, 1976; and White, 1991).
6. Unnamed Inmate at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Sellin's (1967) chapter on prison homicide accepts as factual a report that an otherwise unnamed prisoner at Leavenworth committed murder in order to exchange his life sentence for a death sentence.
7. Solomon's Medical Case History Number One. Psychiatrist George Solomon (1975) wrote about two cases involving capital punishment used as suicide. In the first, a Vietnam veteran, hardened to killing, chose to end it all by engaging in murder-for-hire. He knew that in his state, the death penalty was mandatory for murder-for-hire killings. He told his sister, "I'm too much of a coward to commit suicide."
8. Solomon's Medical Case History Number Two. In Solomon's second case, a twenty-year-old emotionally unstable woman babysitter suffocated two children. In her words (1975, p.707):
I killed my girls; I killed two pieces of me. They were like my sisters and I miss them so much...I had to kill them... Yeah, they would kill me in the electric chair probably. I remember somebody telling me they were trying to get rid of capital punishment, and like I asked the sergeant if like they still had capital punishment and he said yes, so I was pretty happy about it.
In these cases reported by Solomon, both about being executed prior to committing their acts, and in both cases the state gave them prison terms instead of killing them.
9. Unnamed Killer at San Quentin. Psychiatrist Bernard Diamond (1975) reports that a prisoner was executed at San Quentin in 1959. Shortly before his death, he confessed to Diamond that he had committed three rape-murders and had attempted a fourth: His mission was suicide. When Diamond asked him what he would have done had California not had a death penalty, he replied, "I would have had to go to another state where they did have capital punishment and do it there" (1975, p.720).
10. A Texas Farmer. Psychiatrist L.J. West (1976) reported that he was aware of two kinds of execution-inspired crime. He knew of several complicated psychiatric cases, and of two simpler and more obvious ones. In the latter category was a Texas farmer who admitted to being "tired of living" so he shot a total stranger in a café.
11. Lowery in Oklahoma. West also cites the case of an already convicted murderer, Howard Otis Lowery, who killed again in order to make sure he would get the electric chair. In fact, the prospect of execution is so attractive to some people, according to West, that false confessions to murder occur. West's partial explanation for the higher frequency of homicide in death penalty states compared to non-death-penalty states is the evident attraction "to certain warped mentalities" of this violent means of committing suicide. According to this author, "capital punishment breeds suicide," (p. 51).
12. Speck in Illinois. West includes Richard Speck's slaughter of eight nurses as a possible example of a psychopath's attraction to death penalty crimes in a death penalty state. This possibility is supported by the fact that Speck had previously moved from Michigan, which did not have capital punishment. West's speculation has not been confirmed, however.
13. Hickman in Indiana. An Indiana teenager, aged 15, told police he killed his twelve-year-old friend so the state would execute him for murder. He had attempted suicide several times but was too chicken to go through with it (Goetz, 1991).
14. Hampton in Illinois. Days before Lloyd Wayne Hampton was to die by lethal injection in Illinois, he spoke bluntly about the fact that he had murdered in 1990 in order to get the death penalty. In a telephone interview reported by Karwarth (1992), he stated:
I either had to put myself in a position of being killed by somebody else or committing suicide. At that point I had strong beliefs about not killing myself... So I put myself in a position to have the state kill me.
Hampton made sure to torture the victim first, brutally, to ensure that he would be given no mercy.
15. Pope in Nebraska. D.E. Pope, a Kansas football player and college student, took a sociology class field trip to a penitentiary. His roommate reported later that he couldn't talk about anything for the rest of the semester but capital punishment equipment at the prison. Shortly after graduation, he killed three people in a bank robbery in Big Springs, Nebraska. In 1965 in Kansas City, he turned himself in and was tried in federal court on the robbery charge.
Subsequently, Pope was retried in state court on the murder charge, his aim being to receive the death sentence he so badly desired. One trial went on for a month, while both sides trotted out about fifty character witnesses and hired experts to prove whether he should or should not receive a death penalty. The story is well documented in The New York Times (1970).
16-17. Brown and Kelly in Iowa. Charlie Brown and Charles Kelly committed murders in Minnesota in 1962, and then came to Iowa to commit another, particularly horrible, killing. They asked to be tried in Iowa because it had a death penalty, whereas Minnesota did not. Brown said, "I want to die for what I did. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in jail." The state of Iowa accommodated his request and executed both men. Former Iowa Governor Robert Ray has often cited their case as an example of murder attracted by capital punishment.
18-20. Strange Variations on Execution-Suicides. A headline in The Chicago Tribune (Hawes, 1993) declares, "AIDS Patient Charged in Attack with Syringe." Trannie Blue, an AIDS patient at the University of Chicago Hospital, attacked a nurse with a syringe filled with his HIV-infected blood. According to Cook County State Attorney, Blue told investigators he attacked the nurse because he wanted to receive the death penalty and end his suffering.
In The Execution Protocol, Trombley (1992) relates a chilling event that took place at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Two inmates became lovers; one ended up on death row after killing two inmates. In order to join him, the other one strangled his cellmate. Then they were together on death row.
21. Michael Sonner, 25, a jail escapee, killed a Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper because he no longer wanted to live. " I shot him for the death penalty; I'm going to ask for a speedy trial," he said (Omer, 1993). When officers demanded his surrender, Sonner fired two shots into the air. He then put the gun to his head but "didn't have the guts" to take his own life.
22. Robert Allen Smith (Associated Press, 1998) was given the death sentence on July 12, 1996, for killing a fellow inmate in 1995 at the Wabash, Indiana Correctional Facility. Smith said he killed the inmate so he would receive the death penalty and avoid having to serve his 68-year-sentence for battery and habitual offender conviction.
When cases such as those described above are reported individually, each one seems to be one of a kind, just a bizarre product of a sick mind. But when all are reported together, a pattern emerges. The pattern can be verbalized as follows: "I couldn't do it myself. I needed the state to do it for me." In this pattern of calculated, externally inflicted suicide, there is a danger in even just having the death penalty on the statute book in a state. A second danger, beyond the scope of this article, is the danger in allowing citizens to have guns.
For every person who verbalizes this wish of execution, there must be others who were motivated by it but who never admit it. Death by lethal injection would seem to offer an especially easy way out.
Often politicians in the U.S. clamor for the death penalty for prisoners who kill in prison. The stated reason is protection for correctional staff and fellow inmates. Studies in Britain and the U.S., however, reveal that prison suicide attempts and suicides are extremely high, especially for inmates with little hope of early release (Cabana, 1996; Gunby, 1981; Liebling, 1995; Sellin, 1967). To make prison homicides capital offenses, therefore, would clearly attract many desperate suicidal inmates who have no qualms about taking a life.
Relatively little is known about suicide-murder. The American Medical Association's call for further research in 1992 has not been heeded. Historically, persons who kill themselves have been regarded as introverts, internalizers, in sharp contrast to those who take out their aggression on others. Perhaps this is one reason that suicide-murders have seemed to defy explanation, and been so rarely the subject of inquiry. Palermo's (1994) concept of extended suicide is highly relevant to the hypothesis put forth in this paper, namely, that some people commit murder in order to be blown away themselves in one form or another. In the case histories described in this article, the drama and publicity of execution, no doubt, provided a major attraction for some very sick individuals. Gilligan's (1992) volume, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, probes, meaningfully, the suicidal criminal mind, the mind of fighting men whose fantasy of heroism is to die and to take others into death with them. While Palermo's work dealt with intimate, possessive relationships gone sour, Gilligan's concern was more with random killings including homicide of strangers. That such homicide of strangers can also constitute a form of extended suicide -- called here suicide-murder -- is one of the conclusions of this article. Moreover, due to the highly suicidal bent of prisoners in combination with their propensity toward violence and impulsiveness, one could safely predict that death penalty states will continue to have a high homicide rate within prison walls. In a choice between life in prison and death in prison, many inmates will choose death.
Within prison and without, there are certain disturbed individuals -- mostly men and mostly whites -- for whom the prospect of execution was highly appealing. Viewed collectively, the twenty-two case histories show there is “method in the madness” of many homicides. In no way is this an attempt to excuse such cruel and self-serving behavior. More research is needed to further document the extent to which execution attracts murder. A better understanding of the psycho dynamics of suicidal murder in its many manifestations may help explain the futility of capital punishment as a deterrent to murder.
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