Murder-Parasuicide: A Case Series in Western Australia

By Brett, Adam | Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Murder-Parasuicide: A Case Series in Western Australia


Brett, Adam, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law


This article describes a case series of murder followed by suicide attempts. Examining this type of offender may help us better understand the group who complete murder followed by suicide. Research in this area will always be difficult given the rarity of the event and the retrospective approach, which is usually required.

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A young mother of 25 killed herself and her five children, fuelling speculation in the popular press about the possible motives for such an event. There is scant literature on such rare events. Research into murder-suicide has focussed on retrospective reviews using psychological autopsies (Cohen, Llorente & Eisdorfer, 1998; Felthous & Hempel, 1995; Rosebaum, 1990). It has many methodological flaws and is hampered by the extremely low base rate of such events.

Murder followed by suicide is rare. The incidence, however, is remarkably constant both within countries and between countries. The mean rate is between 0.2 and 0.3 per 100,000 (Coid, 1983; Marzuk, Tardiff, & Hirsch, 1992). This is the case even when looking at regions with vastly different homicide rates. In countries with a high homicide rate the proportion of murder-suicides is low and the proportion increases as the homicide rate decreases (Coid, 1983; Marzuk et al., 1992)

This suggests that murder-suicide is distinct from homicide, with possibly different etiological factors. There have been different definitions of murder-suicide (Marzuk et al., 1992). The main differences include the evidence required that the primary event was murder and committed by the subject, and the time interval between offences. The time interval has been defined from within 24 hours to 3 months (Allen, 1983; Palmer & Humphrey, 1980). The term murder-suicide is preferred to homicide-suicide as murder implies intent to kill and so excludes those cases of accidental killing with subsequent suicide. Murder-parasuicide is defined as the successful murder of an individual, followed by an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Successful suicide with unsuccessful homicide was not included nor unsuccessful attempts at both events.

Suicide pacts have some features similar to murder-suicide (Rosenbaum, 1983). These include the high proportion of men as instigators and the diagnosis of depression (Rosenbaum, 1983). A suicide pact is a mutual arrangement between two or more people to die together at the same time, usually in the same place (Rosen, 1981). It is a rare event with different rates in different cultures (Rosen, 1981; Fishbain & Aldrich, 1985). The differentiation between murder-suicide and suicide pacts often depends on coronial and police investigations (Rosenbaum, 1983).

Marzuk et al. (1992) proposed a classification of murder-suicide based on victim-offender relation-ship and principal motive or precipitant. The different victim-offender relationships are (a) spousal or consortial, (b) familial, and (c) extrafamilial. The different precipitants included: amorous jealousy; "mercy killing"; "altruistic or extended suicide"; and familial, financial, or social stressors.

The most common murder-suicide, representing 50-75% involves the spouse or consort with the class of amorous jealousy (Marzuk et al., 1992; Shepherd, 1961). The offender is usually male and suspects his partner of infidelity, which may be real or delusional (Easteal, 1994). The murder is usually triggered by rage, jealousy or paranoia at a time of real or suspected separation.

Mercy killing at a time of declining health is another common proposed subtype in the spousal/ consortial group (Marzuk et al., 1992). The perpetrator is usually an older man, who, becoming depressed by his partner's failing health, decides to end both their suffering. There is much overlap between this proposed subtype and suicide pact victims (Cohen, 1961; Rosenbaum, 1983) and they can be difficult to differentiate.

Familial murder-suicide is often motivated by altruistic ideas and includes salvation fantasies of rescue and escape from problems. …

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