Criminal Justice Outcomes in Intimate and Non-intimate Partner Homicide Cases

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The purpose of this report is to examine the role of intimacy in criminal law by comparing criminal justice outcomes in cases of intimate partner homicide to outcomes in cases of non-intimate partner homicide. Intimate partner homicide is defined here as those killings that occur between current or former legal spouses, common-law partners or dating couples. Non-intimate partner homicide is defined as those killings that occur between family members (not including spouses), friends, acquaintances and strangers. Two research questions are addressed: (1) Do those accused of killing intimate partners receive different treatment in the criminal justice system compared to those accused of killing victims with whom they shared more distant relationships? (2) Has the role of intimacy in criminal law changed over time? These are important research questions because the way in which the courts in Canada and other developed countries respond to intimate partner violence has been the subject of much debate in the past several decades and numerous legislative and policy changes have occurred as a result.

Data analyzed in this report were collected in two different stages. Data on homicides that occurred in the single, urban jurisdiction of the City of Toronto from 1997 to 2002 were collected as part of this research project whereas data on homicides from 1974 to 1996 were part of an earlier project by the author. By merging these two data sets, the sample in this study includes all homicides known to and recorded by legal and medical officials in Toronto and resolved through the adult criminal justice system between and including 1974 to 2002 – a period of almost three decades. The primary source of information for this study was Crown Attorney files.

From 1974 to 2002, there were 1,612 reported homicides in the City of Toronto. Of these, 288 remain unsolved; that is, no accused has been identified. For the 1,324 solved homicides, 1,416 accused persons were identified and 1,137 were charged. Among the group of 1,137 accused persons, 230 (20 percent) were charged with killing an intimate partner and 907 (80 percent) were charged with killing victims with whom they shared more distant relationships. These figures are consistent with the most recent national figures that indicate one out of every five homicides involve intimate partners. Comparing these two types of homicide, eight criminal justice outcomes are examined: initial prosecution charge, the mode of conviction, verdict at trial, type of acquittal, overall likelihood of conviction, severity of conviction, type of sentence and length of sentence.

In the Toronto sample, 91 percent of the initial charges were for murder – 37 percent of accused were charged with first-degree murder and 54 percent were charged with second-degree murder. In the remaining 9 percent of the cases, 8 percent of the accused were charged with manslaughter and 1 percent of the accused were charged with other offences. In the total sample, 58 percent of the cases were resolved at trial and 42 percent were resolved through guilty pleas. Of those resolved at trial, 60 percent of the accused were found guilty. Overall, including both trials and guilty pleas, 76 percent of the 1,137 accused persons were convicted. Of those convicted, 9 percent were convicted of first-degree murder, 30 percent were convicted of second-degree murder and 54 percent were convicted of manslaughter. Finally, at the sentencing stage, 83 percent were sentenced to a federal institution and the average sentence was approximately 9 years. Of those convicted of manslaughter, the average sentence was 5.5 years and, of those convicted of second-degree murder for which the minimum mandatory sentence is 10 years, the average sentence was 12.5 years. All those convicted of first-degree murder are sentenced to 25 years before parole eligibility.

With respect to the first research question – are accused who kill intimate partners treated differently than accused who kill other types of victims – the findings demonstrate that intimacy does appear to matter in criminal law, but more so at earlier stages of the criminal justice process. The four key findings are as follows:

Initial prosecution charge

At the initial charging stage, accused persons who killed intimate partners were significantly less likely to be charged with first-degree murder than those who killed victims with whom they did not share an intimate partner relationship.

Mode of conviction

Cases that involved intimate partners were significantly less likely to be resolved at trial than cases of non-intimate partner homicide. In other words, accused persons who killed intimate partners were more likely to plead guilty than those who killed non-intimate partners.  

Verdict at trial

Of those cases resolved at trial, those accused of killing intimate partners were more likely to be found guilty at this stage than those accused of killing non-intimate partners.

Overall conviction

Accused persons who killed intimate partners were significantly more likely to be convicted overall than accused persons who killed victims with whom they shared more distant relationships. This finding is likely due, in large part, to the greater likelihood that they are also more likely to plead guilty as noted above.

Since the early 1970s, there has been enormous growth in the amount of public and professional attention given to violence within the family, but more particularly, to the problem of violence against women within intimate relationships. Work by feminists and grassroots organizations have drawn the attention of both members of the public and the legal profession to what was traditionally perceived to be a private family problem not appropriate for legal intervention. As a result, in the past several decades, social and legal reforms and other government initiatives have targeted intimate violence, moving it from a private to a public concern. Based on these changes, it might be reasonable to expect that this heightened awareness of or sensitivity to intimate violence may influence the way in which criminal justice officials respond to violent crime. While it was not possible to test here whether there is a causal link between these changes and criminal justice responses to intimate violence over time, the second research question in this study examined whether the role of intimacy in criminal law had changed during the past three decades, paralleling this increasing concern.

With respect to this research question, the key findings are as follows:

Mode of conviction

Accused persons in intimate partner homicides were less likely than accused persons in non-intimate partner homicides to have their cases resolved at trial in both periods examined (1974-1983 and 1984-2002). In short, guilty pleas appear to be more common in cases of intimate partner homicide than in cases of non-intimate partner homicide and this has remained so over time.  

Verdict at trial

Of those cases resolved at trial, those accused of killing intimate partners were more likely to be found guilty at trial than those accused of killing non-intimate partners in the more recent period. This was not the case in the early period.  

Overall conviction

Given that accused persons in intimate partner homicides were more likely to plead guilty and more likely to be found guilty at trial than accused persons in non-intimate partner homicides, they were more likely to be convicted overall in the more recent period. In contrast, those who killed intimate partners were not more likely than those who killed non-intimate partners to be convicted overall in the earlier period.  

Severity of conviction

Accused persons in cases of intimate partner homicide were less likely to be convicted of murder (first- or second-degree) in the early period of the study. However, this was no longer the case in the more recent period.

Based on these findings, then, one can tentatively conclude that intimacy does matter in criminal justice decision-making, but that the role of intimacy has changed over time. To achieve a better understanding of this association, however, several important areas for future research are identified. First, how do we explain the association between intimacy and the plea resolution process? What is it about cases of intimate partner homicide and/or the accused persons involved that seem to make them or their cases more amenable to plea resolutions than other types of cases?

Second, determining how to assess whether homicides cases (and other types of violence) are similar in both a social and a legal context and what factors may be important when making such comparisons remains an issue. In particular, understanding the role of three important legal variables – premeditation, provocation and intoxication – in cases of intimate partner and non-intimate partner homicide is important, but traditionally this information has been largely absent from criminal justice research. Related to this, stereotypes that are associated with violent crime based on the type of victim-accused relationship need to be examined in more detail to determine, first, if they are valid and, second, how they may frame expectations about and responses to violence by criminal justice actors.

Finally, and perhaps most important, researchers need to continue to examine trends in criminal justice outcomes while at the same time working toward an understanding of what explains the patterns documented here and in future research. This study has shown that changes have occurred in the way intimacy is treated within the courts and these changes appear to parallel the increasing concern about and awareness of intimate violence as a serious social issue. However, it was not the goal of this study nor can it be concluded based on its findings that there is a direct link between the implementation of new laws and/or policies that target the treatment of intimate partner violence in criminal law and changing criminal justice responses over time. It does suggest, though, that such an association is possible and warrants further investigation. To do so, however, requires better criminal justice data than are available. Currently, no national data sources are available that are able to link information on victim, accused and offence characteristics to criminal justice outcomes in criminal cases. In addition, adequate measures of the desired outcomes of programs and initiatives need to be developed. Ideally, this would occur prior to rather than post-implementation. Finally, more research needs to focus on the attitudes, beliefs and reasoning practices of criminal justice officials who respond to violent crime.

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