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Girls who kill

By Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D.

There has been a resurgence of interest in girls who kill, following the report of two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who stabbed another girl of the same age 19 times on 31 May 2014. The girls reportedly had planned to kill their friend following a birthday sleepover to demonstrate their allegiance to a fictionalized Internet character known as Slender Man. Despite the horror and the apparent senseless nature of the attack, all three girls had some good fortune. 

Although the victim had been left for dead, she miraculously lived. Had one of the stab wounds been a millimeter closer to a major artery by the heart, the victim would have bled to death. The victim crawled from the woods towards the street and cried for help. Had she not had the will to live and the good fortune of a passerby who heard her cries and took immediate action, the two assailants would have been facing murder charges instead of attempted murder charges. Under today’s sentencing laws, these two 12-year-old girls if convicted of premeditated murder in adult court could have spent the rest of their lives in prison.

The story sparked national attention given the age and gender of the assailants and the viciousness of the act. Questions quickly followed: Are murders by girls on the rise? Do girls who commit lethal violence differ from boys?

I have been evaluating juvenile homicide offenders and analyzing murder arrest trends in the United States for 30 years. My analyses of over 40,000 case of juveniles (ages 6-17) arrested nationally for murder and non-negligent manslaughter provide convincing evidence that the involvement of girls does not show an increasing trend over the years. On the average, the proportion of juveniles arrested for murder who were female since the mid-1970s has been about 8%. Stated another way, 92% of kids under 18 who are arrested for murder are boys. Analyses of victims, weapons used, co-defendant status, and circumstances indicate that there are significant differences (not due to chance) between boys and girls arrested for murder.

Do Not Cross, Crime Scene, Uploaded by Diego Grez. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Do Not Cross, Crime Scene, Uploaded by Diego Grez. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Girls under 18 are significantly more likely than boys:

  • To kill intimate partners
  • To kill victims under age 5
  • To kill family members
  • To use a knife, personal weapon, or weapon other than a gun
  • To kill a female victim
  • To act alone
  • To be involved in a conflict-related killings (e.g., argument)

Boys under 18 are significantly more likely than girls:

  • To kill adolescents and adults
  • To kill strangers
  • To use a gun
  • To kill male victims
  • To be involved in crime-related killings
  • To be involved in gang-related killings
  • To use accomplices to kill

The Wisconsin stabbing brought attention once again to youth violence in the United States. While murders committed by juveniles under 18 have decreased substantially since 1993, when they reached record highs, it is no time for complacence. This tragic case underscores the importance of parents to be aware of their children’s activities and to monitor their Internet activities. While it is unknown what factors in concert propelled these girls to plot for months to kill their friend, one fact is known from their statements to the police: their belief in a homicidal mythical internet character was part of the near lethal equation.

Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D. is a Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and author of Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Parents (Oxford U. Press, 2013), Animal Cruelty: Pathway to Violence against People (Alta-Mira, 2004), Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide (Sage, 1999), and Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Homicide (Ohio State University Press, 1992).

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