The Murder Inquiry and the Complexities of Victim Experiences: The Need for a Community and Social Justice Perspective

By Brown, Sheila | British Journal of Community Justice, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

The Murder Inquiry and the Complexities of Victim Experiences: The Need for a Community and Social Justice Perspective


Brown, Sheila, British Journal of Community Justice


Abstract

This paper draws on research evidence from the author's study of murder investigation 1 in order to generate questions about social and welfare consequences of the contemporary murder inquiry. The paper discusses findings from interviews with Senior Investigating Officers, Detectives from Outside Inquiry Teams and Family Liaison Officers, Scientific Support, and Media Communications divisions. The legal-scientific logic of responding to murder, with an ever sharper focus on forensic strategy, drives the murder inquiry and characterises the wider policy and social response to murder. This excludes a broader community justice perspective on criminal homicide victimization. The need to respond effectively to complex cumulative effects of the murder inquiry itself on primary victims and the homicide-bereaved is neglected. Third Sector organizations are left with inadequate resources to 'pick up the pieces'. The paper concludes by supporting recent critics of victim policies and victim based research, in calling for further collaborative research between third sector organizations and universities with the aim of achieving better outcomes for victims; and asserts the need for a community and social justice, rather than an exclusively juridical perspective.

Key Words: Murder, detection, forensic investigation, human factors in criminal investigation, victims, homicide bereavement, community justice, social justice, evidential considerations.

Introduction

This paper draws on research conducted by the author on murder inquiries within a large police force1. It is concerned with the internal logic of the murder inquiry and its sometimes iatrogenic consequences for victims2. Within the already tense and often partisan debates surrounding victims' 'needs' and 'rights', and the emergence since the 1980's of a distinctive victim-focussed strand in UK policy and academic research (Goodey 2005), criminal homicide victimization occupies an especially sensitive position (Innes 2003) and sits at the centre of a controversial symbolic territory. Politics of various kinds tends to subsume the voices of homicide survivors and the dead cannot speak for themselves. Further, death remains a taboo subject, so that to focus a concerted on it can seem negative.

The classic academic monograph on homicide bereavement and the politics of survivors' organizations by Paul Rock (Rock 1998a, 1998b; though see also Ruback and Thompson 2001 and a limited number of studies reported by Victim Support 2006) remains one of the few in-depth academic studies. Rock gives a comprehensive account of bereavement through homicide and identifies crucial aspects of the ways in which the bereavement 'career' is affected by the criminal justice system. Principal among these are the powerlessness imposed by the forensic process, the effects of being treated as a suspect by the police whilst in deep grief, and the traumatic effects of separation from the dead person and powerlessness over the body (Rock 1998b). In the policy sphere, recent, good quality descriptive research - albeit small scale and sampled from victim service/support group users (Victim Support 2006) - has sought to identify service needs in relation to Victim Support. Findings from the latter research include results that suggest with the criminal justice system itself 'can significantly disrupt and protract the grief process, as well as fuelling some of the emotional difficulties [of traumatic bereavement homicide]' (Malone 2007, p384). Malone reports that victims' emotional responses are 'constrained and perverted' by features of the criminal investigation and the 'intense period of police investigations, post-mortems, and media attention' (Malone 2007 p387). Ruback and Thompson (2001 pl40) in the US context found that 'when family members of homicide victims deal with the criminal justice system following the murder of their loved ones, their involvement can exacerbate many of the psychological wounds brought on by the homicide'.

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