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Parricide in perspective

By Kathleen M. Heide, PhD

It hardly seems like 24 years since Jose and Kitty Menendez were shot to death on 20 August 1989 by their two sons, Lyle and Eric. It was a crime that shocked the nation because the family seemed “postcard perfect” to many observers. Jose was an immigrant from Cuba who worked hard and became a multi-millionaire. He married Kitty, a young attractive woman he met in college, who was also hardworking. They were the parents of two handsome sons.

When their sons were arrested for the murders, the public wanted to know why two young men who had so much going for them would gun down the very people who had given them life and privilege. The prosecution argued that these men committed the crime to get their parents’ inheritance, valued at 14 million dollars. The defense argued that the boys had been physically, sexually, psychologically, and verbally abused by their parents for years and killed because they were in fear of their lives.

The first trial for Lyle and for Eric ended in a mistrial with jurors divided over whether the defendants were guilty of premeditated murder or not guilty by reason of self-defense. In a second trial, the defendants were convicted of two counts of first degree murder, as well as conspiracy to commit murder. The jurors found two special circumstances applied that could make them eligible for the death penalty: lying in wait and multiple murders. The jurors, however, recommended life in prison; the judge imposed a sentence of life in prison without parole.

BW_Clinedinst,_the_Borden_murder_trial_cph.3c23237The killing of parents, often referred to as parricide (which technically means the killing of a close relative), has fascinated the public for thousands of years. It is a recurrent theme in mythology and literature, as evident in the stories of Orestes, Oedipus, Alcmaeon, King Arthur, and Hamlet. Lizzie Borden, the 32-year-old daughter charged with killing her parents in 1892, remains notorious more than 100 years after the double murder occurred. The poem “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one” has immortalized her for generations.

As I write, two cases in New Mexico are making world news. One involves the case of a boy who at age 10 allegedly killed his father; in the other, a 15-year-old boy allegedly killed his father, mother, and three younger siblings. Fortunately, despite the attention that these cases receive, extensive analyses of more than 30 years of murder arrests in the United States provide no evidence that parricide is increasing. The two boys in New Mexico, the Menendez brothers, and Lizzie Borden, although headline grabbers, are in fact quite anomalous.

Here are some basic facts about the offspring killing their parents:

  • Parricides are rare events. They comprise about 2-5% of all homicides in the United States and in other countries where this phenomenon has been studied.
  • Most parents in the United States who are slain by their children are killed in single victim incidents by an offspring acting alone.
  • Most offspring who kill parents are adults. Less than 25% of “children” who kill their parents are under age 18.
  • Incidents with multiple offenders, such as the Menendez brothers, are very atypical events. Fewer than 10% of parricide victims are killed by offspring acting with one or more accomplices.
  • Double parricides involving mothers and fathers and other parental killings involving multiple victims such as familicides (killing of three or more family members) are also exceedingly uncommon, constituting about 8% of all parents killed by their offspring on the average in the United States every year.
  • Female parricide offenders such as Lizzie Borden are exceedingly rare. More than 80% of parricide offenders involved in single victim or multiple victim murders are males.

Parricides, among the most disturbing of crimes, are also among the most preventable of homicides. There are often warning signs that precede the killings. Such risk factors or circumstances include the severely abused, the severely mentally ill, the dangerously antisocial, and the enraged parricide offender. Homicidal thoughts and threats are not uncommon among these four types of parricide offenders and should always be taken seriously.

Kathleen M. Heide, PhD, is Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida. Her lastest book, Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Parents, was published in December 2012 by Oxford University Press.

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Image credit: The Borden murder trial—A scene in the court-room before the acquittal – Lizzie Borden, the accused, and her counsel, Ex-Governor Robinson. Illustration in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 76 (1893 June 29), p. 411. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

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