The Definition of Murder

This post initiates a new series that I’m calling Prescription for Murder.  Each week I’ll reflect on some aspect of the criminal act known as MURDER.  In most any reference, its defined as an unlawful killing with malice.  The words unlawful and malice give the word its defining structure and distinguishes the act from acceptable killings.

In researching the law related to killings, a murder can be defined by three basics that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt:

1)   The act of causing a death must be deliberate (meaning premeditated and calculated);

2)   The act must be intentional to either kill, cause grievous bodily harm or be one of reckless indifference to human life; and

3)   The act of killing must not have been carried out as self-defense.

But beyond those lackluster words of the law, I began thinking about what really defines a murder.  Initially, I came across a reference to a 1968 TV movie called Prescription For Murder.  It was about a psychiatrist who had an affair with a patient and convinced her to help him kill his wife (a deliberate, intentional, non-self-defense killing).  A little known, persistent detective named Columbo, played by Peter Falk, solved the case and this led to his highly successful 1970’s TV series Columbo.

Detective Columbo was a favorite of mine, not only because he solved his cases, but also because he solved them with a psychological twist.  He looked beyond the act, beyond the obvious and studied the motivational possibilities behind the killing.  So I asked the questions “Why do people kill?” “Why choose to kill rather than seek other, less consequential ways to solve a problem?”

Well, it turns out that science has the answers.  It seems that the rationalizations for murder are much more complex than simply motive, method and opportunity.  Current science tells us there are three main reasons why people will choose to kill over other, less violent methods of resolving a major issue in their lives.

One is genetics.  People who turn to killing are thought to be naturally more aggressive and it’s often because they inherit one or more specific genes for violence.  These warrior genes are specifically tied to a predisposition to violence and aggression.

Another involves a brain malfunction.  For instance, a loss of brain functionality in, or a failure to properly develop, the frontal lobe can lead to violence and murder.  The frontal lobe (that part of the brain under our foreheads and behind our eyes) contains the coding for ethics and morality.  It’s also the center for impulse control.  So any frontal lobe damage or misdirected development can lead to miscues of ethics and moral decision-making, causing improper responses to life’s everyday challenges.

The last is abuse.  This can be sexual, psychological or physical in nature.  Abuse during the childhood years are the most damaging and often leads to psychopathologies later in life.  The specific type of abuse, along with how intense and how long it occurred, usually determines the specific psychopathology that might result.

As one can expect, specific tendencies to murder may develop as a result of a combination of these factors.  A violent genetic predisposition may play a greater role when a child is abused and may well be inconsequential if the child is the product of a stable, caring family environment.  A child with frontal lobe abnormalities may be channeled into a productive life if taught to control improper impulses, but spin out of control in an abusive environment.  The combinations are endless, and so are the resulting pathologies and potential murders that can result.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the urge to kill.  The motivations and underlying pathologies are as numerous as its methods, but there is one common factor in almost every murder–the killer feels strongly justified, no matter how malicious the act.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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10 Responses to The Definition of Murder

  1. Hi James: Looking forward to your views on this. I’m particularly interested, since the genres of choice for my novel writing are mystery/suspense/thriller . . . two done, neither published . . . yet.
    Besides, you have a very readable writing style.

  2. Arlee Bird says:

    The idea of genetics is interesting to me. I’ve wondered if perhaps there could be a genetic predisposition to steal, to lie, or other criminally related activities. I don’t think so, since I think anything like this is behaviorally related and influenced by upbringing. But the genetic concept is something that I’ve pondered.

    Of course I guess there is also the concept of “original sin” and the “evil nature of mankind” as suggested by religion.

    Interesting stuff.

    Tossing It Out

  3. Hi, Lee! I just finished a novel (“Defending Jacob”) that touched on “the murder gene”. It was a good read. Makes me wonder what is hiding in our DNA?!

  4. Jim,
    I do not believe any of genetics, brain malfunction, or abuse is why someone commits murder. They are enablers, making it easier for someone to commit murder. There has to be a trigger. To a salesperson, it is the “compelling event” that makes the person buy now. It might be something as simple as “he insulted me” or as complex as “I want to marry that lady.” If we leave out the really crazy (“I wanted to watch someone die”), I suspect most murders are viewed by the perpetrator as self defense. I was protecting my honor, my happiness, my social status, my freedom. In the last comes the far too many cases where someone is interrupted in a relatively minor crime, and kills the discoverer to avoid being charged with the crime.
    Why do people die in your novels? At least in what I have had the privilege to read, it seemed to me to be because someone was defending themselves from what they viewed as a problem, the unraveling of their evil plot.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Walt, and for an insightful answer to “Why do people commit murder?” The whole concept of murder is complex with multi-faceted triggers as potential explanations. It’s an interesting point you make about most murders being viewed as self defense by the perpetrator, a protection of some real or perceived threat to his or her world. That could well be the ultimate trigger! Anyone out there agree with that? Walt makes a valid point!

  6. Mary S. Black says:

    Jim, Jim, Jim. You’ve opened a can of worms here. Just what are the ‘acceptable’ killings you mention? I’ve got a lot of people I’d like to kill. If I do it with love instead of malice, is that OK? How ’bout if I just do it for the good of the world in general? Does that let me off the hook?

    • “Acceptable killings”? Not in my mind, but murderers often seem to have a justifiable reason in their minds that make the kill acceptable. Since my novels all involve murder, I find that fascinating and makes for good character development. Walt Lapinsky’s comment that murderers may view their kills as a sort of self defense, protecting something that is dear to them (at least in their minds). For more, read my next blog, and I really appreciate your comments.

  7. Great report. Keep it up.

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