An exploration of confrontational homicide in Victoria

Criminology Research Council grant ; (12/90)

The report of this researh is an analysis of forms of male-on-male homicide. It is a follow-up to an earlier study which, consistent with research elsewhere, found that males not only constitute a vast majority of homicide offenders, but further that slightly over half of all homicides involve males taking the lives of other males. The purpose of the present research is to establish, if possible, the patterns which characterise these distinctively male homicides.

The data for the research are drawn from the files of the Office of the Coroner of Victoria, and include all homicides reported to the Coroner for the years 1985-1989. The files consist of an initial report of the attending police regarding the death, the brief prepared by the police for presentation at the Coroner's Inquest, the autopsy report regarding the cause of death, any relevant toxicology reports, and the report of the Inquest itself. For each of the 376 homicides reported in the five-year period, a case study was prepared which focused particularly on the dynamics of the interaction which had taken place between the victim and the offender. Just over half (51.6 per cent) of these homicides consisted of events where males were involved both as offenders and victims in the homicide.

From the analysis of the case study material, there were three major scenarios which describe these male-on-male killings. The first of these consisted of confrontational homicides, which typically began as a form of honour contest between males which then resulted in a fight, leading ultimately to the lethal violence. Such honour contests are distinctively male (only one case with these dynamics involved women), and individuals of either underclass or working-class origins (only two cases clearly involved a person of higher social class position). These events were likely to occur in open public settings, such as pubs, discos, streets and laneways, parks or reserves, or perhaps parties or barbecues. The violence was frequently played out against a backdrop of male peers, and alcohol use by either victim or offender was found in a majority of cases. This confrontation scenario accounted for roughly one in five (74 or 19.6 per cent) of all reported homicides.

The second major scenario consisted of homicides which can be seen as a form of conflict resolution. In all cases these individuals knew each other well, and in most they previously had been friends. Most commonly the parties involved were exceptionally marginal in both a social and economic sense, often having lengthy criminal histories and being unemployed. Typically a dispute would develop between victim and offender, dealing often with such issues as a debt. The fact that these individuals were often firmly enmeshed in a criminal culture resulted in their being placed in a position where they could not call upon conventional conflict resolution techniques to resolve their dispute. For such persons, violence then becomes an ultimate device for negotiating the conflict. The resulting homicides frequently have an element of rationality and planning which is not found in the confrontational homicides. There were a total of 38 such killings in the five-year period, these making up 10.1 per cent of all homicides.

The third scenario of masculine violence consisted of those homicides which occur in the course of other crime. These homicides can be viewed as resulting from the willingness of the offender to take the exceptional risks involved in engaging in criminal behaviour. Overall, there were 60 such homicides, with the most common sub-theme consisting of 'double victims' where the victim of an initial crime, such as armed robbery, became the victim of homicide as well.

Viewed theoretically, these findings help to underscore the importance of an interpretation of violence which adequately accounts for its masculine characteristics. At the same time, in these male-on-male scenarios, the class variable is equally prominent. An important question posed by these data concerns the issue not only of why some males have a proclivity toward violence, but the equally significant issue of how it is that others are constrained to avoid violence.