Myth or Reality?

Most murders are committed by people who are known to their victim. Should we trust our relatives?

Most of you probably remember Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who won a silver medal in 1994 after being attacked and injured in a plot hatched by skating rival Tanya Harding. After her Olympic victory, Nancy had a very successful career in ice shows. Now a 40-year-old married mother of three, Kerrigan lives in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. She has been out of the news for quite some time. However, she recently vaulted into the media spotlight again when news services reported on January 24, 2010 that her father, Daniel Kerrigan had been killed in a violent struggle with his son, Nancy’s brother Mark. When police arrived at his home they found the 70-year-old Kerrigan passed out on the kitchen floor while the younger Kerrigan “appeared intoxicated, belligerent and combative.” Police had to use pepper spray in order to put him in handcuffs.

The Kerrigan case, much like the infamous 1989 Menendez Brothers case, and other examples of parricide, often give the impression that people kill family members on a routine basis. TV shows like Law and Order: SVU also contribute to the perception that a family member can be your worst enemy. A recent Law and Order: SVU episode, “Shadow” which aired on Jan. 13, 2010 focused on the death of a rich couple found murdered in their bed. It turns out that their daughter committed the crime in order to inherit their money.

Are these lurid news accounts and TV shows misleading? Is the murderous relative a myth? Not really. According to the most recent FBI data, 23 percent of murder victims (in cases where the assailant could be identified) were killed by a family member. In contrast, only 22 percent were killed by strangers; the rest were done in by acquaintances, neighbors, romantic partners, and so on. So should we be afraid of our parents, aunts, uncles, kids, wives and husbands? Unfortunately, the data tells us they can, indeed be our worst enemy.

Writing Assignment: Assume the role of a forensic psychologist for a moment and explain the psychological factors that drive people to commit parricide, or to murder someone they are supposed to love.