Of an estimated 9,600 murder defendants in the nation's 75 most populous counties in 1988, six per cent - or an estimated 540 defendants -were persons charged with murdering their spouse.
Information on the 540 comes from a representative sample of murder cases disposed in 1988, which was assembled from state prosecutor files in 33 of the 75 counties. The counties were widely scattered, from Los Angeles and San Diego, Denver and Dallas, to Philadelphia and Dade County (Miami). A little over half of all murders in the nation occur in these 75 counties. Consequently, survey results summarized in this report have broad relevance because they are from the courts where the majority of the nation's murder trials are held.
This case processing study of spouse murder defendants is the most geographically comprehensive study on the topic. While the survey covers murder cases processed seven years ago, the Bureau of Justice Statistics knows from extensive experience with surveying courts that changes in case processing are quite gradual. The results are therefore likely to be applicable today.
Husbands charged with killing their wife outnumbered wives charged with killing their husband. Of the 540 defendants in spouse murder cases, 318 - or 59 per cent - were husband defendants and 222 - or 41 per cent - were wife defendants.
Blacks comprised 55 per cent of the 540 defendants and whites comprised 43 per cent. Among husband defendants 51 per cent were black and 45 per cent were white. Among wife defendants 61 per cent were black and 39 per cent were white. In 97 per cent of the murders, both spouses were the same race.
Age of spouse murder defendants ranged from 18 to 87. The average age of husband defendants was 41; of wife defendants, 37 years.
First-degree murder was the most frequent charge at arrest, accounting for 70 per cent of defendants. In descending order of seriousness, charges were distributed this way among the 540 spouse murder defendants:
Disposition of Cases
Cases were disposed in one of three ways:
- the prosecutor declined to prosecute; or
- the defendant pleaded not guilty, stood trial, and was either acquitted or convicted; or
- the defendant pleaded guilty.
Of the 540 spouse murder defendants, 232 - or 43 per cent - pleaded guilty to killing their spouse and 238 - or 44 per cent - pleaded not guilty and stood trial. The remaining 70 persons - or 13 per cent - were not prosecuted. (See Table 1.)
Outcome for Defendants Standing Trial
Of the 238 spouse murder defendants who pleaded not guilty, 63 per cent were tried by a jury and the remaining 37 per cent were tried by a judge. Together, judge and juries acquitted 16 per cent of the 238 spouse murder defendants and convicted 84 per cent - or 199 persons - of killing their spouse.
Bench trials (trials before a judge) had a higher acquittal rate than jury trials: 26 per cent of bench trials of spouse murder defendants ended in acquittal, versus 11 per cent of jury trials.
Of the 540 spouse murder defendants, 431 (80%) were ultimately convicted of killing their spouse. Their conviction was the result of either pleading guilty (232 persons) or being convicted at trial (199 persons).
While most persons arrested (70%) for spouse murder were charged with first-degree murder, most persons convicted (52%) of spouse murder had negligent or nonnegligent manslaughter as their conviction offense.
Of the 431 defendants convicted of killing their spouse, 69 per cent were sentenced to a state prison, one per cent were sentenced to a county jail, and the remaining 10 per cent received a sentence of straight probation (no prison or jail confinement).
An estimated 12 per cent of the 431 convicted spouse murderers received a sentence to life imprisonment and one per cent received the death penalty.
Excluding life and death sentences, the average prison term imposed was 13 years.
Differences in Convictions Rates
Wife defendants had a lower conviction rate than husband defendants:
• Of the 222 wife defendants, 70 per cent were convicted. By contrast, of the 318 husband defendants, 87 per cent were convicted.
• Of the 100 wife defendants tried by either a judge or jury, 31 per cent were acquitted, but of the 138 husbands tried, six per cent were acquitted.
• Of the 59 wife defendants tried by a jury, 27 per cent were acquitted, while of the estimated 91 husband defendants tried by a jury, none was acquitted.
Convicted wives were less likely than convicted husbands to be sentenced to prison, and convicted wives received shorter prison sentences than their male counterparts:
• 81 per cent of convicted wives and 94 per cent of convicted husbands received a prison sentence.
• On average, convicted wives received prison sentences that were about 10 years shorter than what husbands received. Excluding life or death sentences, the average prison sentence for killing a spouse was six years for wives but 16.5 years for husbands.
• Among wives sentenced, 15 per cent received a sentence of 20 years or more (including life imprisonment and the death penalty); among husbands, it was 43 per cent.
According to information contained in prosecutor files, more wife defendants (44%) than husband defendants (10%) had been assaulted by their spouse (threatened with a weapon or physically assaulted) at or around the time of the murder.
Certain extreme circumstances may provoke taking a life in self-defense. Such provocation was more often present in wife defendant cases, and wife defendants were less likely than husband defendants to be convicted, suggesting that the relatively high rate of victim provocation characteristic of wife defendant cases was one of the reasons wife defendants had a lower conviction rate than husband defendants. Consistent with that finding, of the provoked wife defendants, 56 per cent were convicted, significantly lower than either the 86 per cent conviction rate for unprovoked wife defendants or the 88 per cent conviction rate for unprovoked husbands.
Wives received shorter prison sentences than husbands (a 10-year difference, on average) even when the comparison is restricted to defendants who were alike in terms of whether or not they were provoked. The average prison sentence for unprovoked wife defendants was seven years, or ten years shorter than the average 17 years for unprovoked husband defendants.
The victim was black in 55 per cent of cases and white in 43 per cent. The likelihood of a defendant being convicted of spouse murder was about the same whether the murder victim was white or black. Among spouse murder defendants whose victim was white, 81 per cent were convicted. Among those whose victim was black, 79 per cent were convicted.
Likewise, the sentence was unrelated to the victim's race. The likelihood of a convicted spouse murderer receiving a prison sentence was about the same whether the murder victim was white or black: the convicted spouse murderer was sentenced to prison in 93 per cent of cases where the victim was white - not significantly different from the 87 per cent of cases where the victim was black.
For conviction for first-degree murder, the average prison term (excluding the life and death sentences) was 29 years in white-victim cases - not significantly different from the 32-year average prison terms in black-victim cases.
For conviction for second-degree murder, the average prison term (excluding life sentences) was 19 years in white-victim cases, significantly longer than the 13 years in black-victim cases. However, 23 per cent of convicted second-degree murder defendants in black-victim cases received a sentence of life imprisonment, compared to eight per cent of defendants of white-victim cases.
For conviction for nonnegligent manslaughter, the average prison term (excluding life sentences) was eight years in white-victim cases, not significantly different from the average six years in black-victim cases.
The likelihood of being convicted and of receiving a prison sentence if convicted were about the same whether the spouse murder defendant was white or black:
• 78 per cent of white defendants were convicted - not significantly different from the 80 per cent of black defendants.
• Among convicted spouse murderers, 93 per cent of white defendants were sentenced to prison - again, not significantly different from the 88 per cent of black defendants.
Three measures of processing time were taken from the day of the murder - to arrest, to indictment, and to final disposition. Most spouse murder defendants were arrested on the same day the killing occurred. Average time to indictment was four months. Average time to final disposition was almost exactly one year.
For husbands tried by a jury, 12.5 months was the average elapsed time from the day of the murder to the conclusion of the jury trial. For wives tried by a jury the average elapsed time was significantly longer - about 18.5 months.
The preceding article has been adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report "Spouse Murder Defendants in Large Urban Counties," NCJ-153256. Copies of the entire report may be obtained from the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit or on the World Wide Web from BJS.