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A study of fire-associated homicide in Australia

Media Release

24 August 2007

'The use of fire in homicide is a particularly heinous crime, involving burning of the victim before or after death', Dr Toni Makkai, Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, said today at the release of the report, 'Fatal fires: fire-associated homicide in Australia, 1990-2004', number 340 in the Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice series

'For the first time, this study presents results on the involvement of fire in homicide in Australia using data from the National Homicide Monitoring Program', Dr Makkai said.

Fire-associated homicide incidents, particularly those involving arson, are becoming more common. However, it is still a relatively rare phenomenon - over the 16 years from 1989-90 to 2004-05 there has been an average of six incidents and nine victims per year.

A total of 100 fire-associated homicide incidents (involving 149 victims and 105 offenders) were identified during the 16 year period.

Sixty-eight percent of incidents were classified as involving fire as a weapon to kill the victim. Within this category there are two subtypes:

  • ante-mortem burning: where the victim cause of death was attributed to the effects of fire but no crime of arson was recorded (16 incidents)
  • primary arson-homicide: where the victim cause of death was attributed to the effects of fire and the homicide was committed in the course of arson (52 incidents).

Of the 68 incidents in which fire was used as a weapon, 63 of these incidents (93%) were classified as murder and five incidents (7%) were deemed manslaughter.

  • the majority of incidents (74%) involved a single victim and a single offender
  • 16% involved a single offender and multiple victims.

Twenty-nine percent of fire-associated homicides involved fire as a secondary element, such as to conceal a homicide committed by other means. This includes two subtypes:

  • post-mortem burning: where the cause of death was not attributed to the effects of fire and no crime of arson was recorded (six incidents) (e.g. victim killed and then burnt)
  • secondary arson-homicide: where cause of death was not attributed to the effects of fire and the homicide was committed in conjunction with arson (23 incidents) (e.g. offender kills victim and subsequently burns down the house).

All of the 29 incidents in which fire was a secondary element to a homicide committed by other means were classified as murder.

  • just over half (54%) involved a single victim and a single offender
  • 29% involved a single offender and multiple victims.

For both types of fire-associated homicide the majority of offenders were male (83%), the mean age of offenders was 32 years, and the majority of victims were male (60%).

Differences between the two types indicated that offender suicide was more frequent in homicide where fire was used as a weapon, and that homicide involving fire as a secondary element tended to be perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Although it might be expected that fire-associated homicides would be harder to solve this study found that 13 percent of fire-associated homicide incidents were unsolved, similar to clearance rates for all homicide incidents in Australia.