Let’s Talk About Murder
It’s astonishing how little we know about murder given it’s central role in all forms of entertainment, including the news. And most especially the local news–if it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes– so we all know that Action Team! 6, or whatever it is called in your area has perfected turning cold bodies into cold cash, all for the titillation of the masses who, as Thoreau once opined, lead lives of quiet desperation.
But watching the local news day and night won’t ever help you understand much about murder, and neither will crime novels, movies, television programs or video games. You’re lucky if you happen to stumble an even rudimentary statistic showing a longitudinal trend. You will learn about, and be exposed to hundreds, and probably thousands of individual, usually horrific, cases, but you will be left to your own wits to discern any patterns that may be lying beneath the surface.
Anyone who has nothing more than a tenuous grasp of the power of information can attest that a sufficiently large corpus of data can sharpen a faint spectral outline of a phenomenon, in this case murder, into the very picture of a grinning skull with all of the verisimilitude of the real thing. Without prosthetic, we might easily work out that a thirteen-year-old is far less likely to be a murderer than an eighteen-year-old, but what if we compare a twenty-five-year-old with someone more than twice that age? A sufficient quantity of data reveals that the comparison isn’t even close. It turns out that the twenty-five-year-old person is far more statistically like to commit murder than someone twice his age.
Then there are murder scenarios to consider. How does murder usually go down in the real world? How often is a knife used? How often a gun? How often a hammer? Turns out it’s almost always much different than how it’s usually depicted in popular media. Usually it’s done with a firearm and is over and done with very quickly. Even when the weapon is something other than a firearm it’s usually the result of a gin-nurtured explosion of rage. People might be having fun playing cards one minute, and in the next be either dead or a murderer.
If we know what the usual scenario is, what about the one that isn’t usual? If Rape and torture are both present characteristics of a homicide, than it belongs in a very rarefied category that comprises maybe one or two percent of all murders. This is even more true if a rapist, torturer and murderer is working together with another person.
Every year in the United States there are roughly 15,000 homicides. And to put this number into a little bit of perspective, suicides are about three times as common, and deaths from auto accidents falling somewhere in the middle. In about eighty-five to ninety five percent of homicides, both the killer and the victim are male. In the majority of cases where the victim is female, she is know by her killer.
To understand the probability of female homicide even better, it is necessary to know the nature of the relationship she had with her killer. Was she in a romantic relationship with this person? Did that relationship come to an end after the woman called it off? Were there any incidents of stalking behavior, be it electronic or otherwise?
In short, a young woman who jilted a young man after a protracted relationship is at far greater risk, statistically, to be killed in a crime of passion by her former lover than she is by a forty-something who she barely knows in a rape, torture, murder scenario involving two killers.
If we were just to crunch data, I would confidently state that there is a probability that is ten to twenty times greater for Ryan than there is for Steven. And even that is probably being overly conservative. Nate Silver, are you out there?