Most men who kill their wives and girlfriends have a track record of domestic violence. But not always.
A fascinating article in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture describes the common threads in another type of spousal murder – one “involving cold, careful, practical calculation.”
“What possesses a husband to kill his wife when divorce is an available alternative?” asks the author, Cynthia Lewis, PhD, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. Titled “Monstrous Arrogance: Husbands Who Choose Murder Over Divorce,” her article examines a dozen convictions obtained in murders “in which husbands apparently kill their wives to save themselves some consequence of divorce that they perceive to be too costly.”
From these compelling stories, a profile emerges of spousal murder that “is calculated, dispassionate, and abetted by a husband’s ability to dehumanize his wife.”
One striking feature is that the women often had no sense of how much danger they were in. That is the murderer’s intent. “This wasn’t an emotional crime,” a homicide detective told Lewis about a carefully planned poisoning in North Carolina. “It wasn’t a crime of passion. It wasn’t the usual spouse-killing. It was a practical matter.”
Deflecting suspicion is often part of the strategy – as it was for the Florida man who injected his wife with a drug that stopped her heart after spreading rumors that she had heart disease. It “was part of a larger fiction he had long been creating to make [her] death appear natural and inevitable.”
This kind of murderer often projects confidence and an ability to win the trust of others, yet is “atypically devoid of feeling.” Other distinguishing features are “icy and shrewd calculation, preservation of outward cool and well-being that relies on the family’s idealized image, and self-centeredness that the word narcissism only begins to convey.”
Personal interest drives the crime, with the murderer perhaps hoping “to move on seamlessly to another life, with another person and without financial loss in an Equitable Distribution state.”
Another common element: “Among the men who have been convicted for killing their wives or conspiring to have their wives killed, rather than sacrifice financial, social, and various other losses through legal divorce, an overwhelming number are physicians.”
Lewis says that in the cases she examined, the murderer was highly intelligent, with an undue sense of entitlement – and a cockiness that often led to his downfall. Such was the outcome for the Illinois man who portrayed himself as a bereaved widower, and the real victim of his wife’s death. And it was the same for the Arizona murderer who maintained his arrogant demeanor even as his trial began, bearing “a look of confident ease…. where one might expect to see either sorrow or shame, depending on whether he were innocent or guilty.”
One more characteristic of these cases is the long delay before a conviction is obtained. But in the stories Lewis describes, justice ultimately prevails.
“Repeatedly in such cases, the defendants, who take for granted their public poise and ease at persuading others—and who, above all, enjoy a substantial degree of control over their situations and over people in their orbit—underestimate the strain they will face when being cross-examined by skilled prosecutors.”
Hubris, says Lewis, is often their undoing.
Cynthia Lewis, the Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Davidson College, based her journal article on media stories of spousal homicide convictions and some 20 interviews with law enforcement officers, officers of the court, jury members and others. The material quoted here is drawn from the article and reproduced with permission. The bold emphases have been added for this blog. Read the full article here.