Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Arson-Associated Homicide in Australia: A Five Year Follow-Up

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Arson-Associated Homicide in Australia: A Five Year Follow-Up

Article excerpt

Setting fire at a crime scene, either before or after another offence, has the potential to destroy evidence and increase the likelihood of the crime remaining unsolved. When deliberately lit fires are used as a weapon in violent crimes, they have the potential to cause significant damage and to injure or kill victims, including unintended victims. The associated danger to the public from firesetting is much greater than if a more controllable criminal tool is used by the offender.

Despite the development of several theories of adult firesetting behaviour (Canter & Fritzon 1998; Dickens & Sugarman 2012; Doley et al. 2011 ; Fritzon 2012; Gannon & Pina 2010; Gannon et al. 2012), the topic of fire-setting as it relates to fatal fires or homicide has been the focus of little empirical investigation. This is surprising given that firesetters are often depicted in the literature as individuals with serious and versatile antisocial behaviours, and with offending histories that can run the gamut from minor property to serious violent offences (Doley et al. 2011 ; Jayaraman & Frazer 2006; Muller 2009; O'Sullivan & Kelleher 1987; Soothill, Ackerley & Francis 2004). These findings support the importance of studying the relationship between deliberate firesetting and other serious crime types such as homicide.

A fire may be maliciously set for reasons unrelated to homicide yet subsequently lead to death, as was seen in the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009. Conversely, fire may be set to a building, or person, with the sole purpose of causing a death. A building or person may also be set alight after a homicide has occurred, in an attempt by the firesetter to prevent identification or delay discovery of the deceased, to stage the crime scene, or destroy evidence. Regardless of the specific intention, fire is a unique and powerful tool with the potential to hamper homicide investigations (Davies & Mouzos 2007; Drake & Block 2003; Sapp & Huff 1994). There is also some evidence to suggest that its use in association with homicide is increasing in Australia (Davies & Mouzos 2007), making it necessary to study in greater detail arson-associated homicide incidents and the offenders who perpetrate them.

Prior research

Aside from previous research by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) into arson-associated homicide (AIC 2007; Davies & Mouzos 2007), all of the literature on arsonassociated homicide comes from overseas. In the largest study ever published, Drake and Block (2003) examined 269 arsonassociated homicides in Chicago from 1965 to 1995. The authors highlighted important victim characteristics, finding that children, females and the elderly were overrepresented compared with victims of other homicides. It was also found that arson was present in 1.2 percent of all homicides.

Consistent with Davies and Mouzos (2007), the present study differentiates between cases where firesetting was used as a primary murder weapon and those where it was used after the murder. Cases where arson was used as a murder weapon, where a fire was set to a structure containing a living victim or to the victim themselves, are termed 'ante-mortem' or 'primary' arsonassociated homicides. Those cases where the arson was employed after the death to delay identification of the body, destroy evidence and/or stage the crime scene are referred to as 'secondary' or 'post-mortem' arson-associated homicides.

Drake and Block's (2003) study found that male offenders more often perpetrated secondary arson, whereas females made up a greater proportion of offenders in primary arson-homicides than for offences involving arson. Of particular note was the finding by Drake and Block (2003) that arson-associated homicides involved a higher clearance rate overall than homicides in general, most likely due to the increased resources of using both specialist fire and police investigators. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.