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Family violence

Lauren Astley's murder -- An all- too-familiar story?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment July 5, 2011 06:00 PM

The murder of Lauren Astley, a popular, pretty and promising 18-year-old from well-to-do Wayland, came as a shock to residents of this typically safe suburb, but especially, of course, to her family and close friends. Today’s arrest of Nathaniel Fujita, also 18, for suspicion of killing Astley was hardly surprising, except perhaps to his family and close friends.

At this stage, we know very little about Fujita, other than that he apparently had dated Astley for several years -- that is, until their recent break-up. But given what we do know about usual homicide patterns, the “teenage boy kills former-girlfriend” is an all too familiar story. Time -- and the investigation/trial -- will tell if the story was repeated here.

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Fewer mothers killing kids

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 23, 2011 08:00 AM

At least based on comments uploaded to my "Why mothers kill" blog post of last week, there appears to be some disagreement about whether mothers or fathers are more apt to commit infanticide. The opposing positions are supported by conflicting research reports that use different data sources and different time frames.

There are logical reasons to back either point of view. One might think that fathers are more inclined to kill their children in light of the very uneven gender split generally among those who commit homicide. Overall, 90% of murderers in this country are male.

On the other hand, mothers tend to have much greater contact with their children, increasing the opportunities for violent outbursts directed against their sons or daughters. To whatever extent infanticide is precipitated by the stresses and strains of child rearing, one might expect mothers to outnumber fathers as perpetrators of infanticide.

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Why mothers kill

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 20, 2011 09:00 AM

The grim discovery of 6-year-old Camden Pierce Hughes lying dead on the side of a road in southern Maine and the subsequent arrest of his mother, Julianne McCrery, under suspicion of murder have attracted widespread attention and outrage. In fact, Wednesday’s news of the 42-year-old woman’s capture at a rest stop in Chelmsford, Massachusetts may have eclipsed President Obama’s visit to Boston as the lead story of the day and evening.

If only such cases were as rare as they should be. Regrettably, nearly 100 children ages 5-7 are murdered annually in the United States, and about 20% of these young victims are murdered by their mothers. And this is just the top end of a much larger cluster: There are, on average, about 180 children ages 7 and younger who are murdered each year at the hands of the women who brought them into the world. That’s about one mother-perpetrated infanticide every other day.

It is difficult for most of us to fathom how someone could kill their own flesh and blood, especially a victim so young and innocent. Motherhood is supposed to be about nurturing, not murdering. The motives for such crimes vary from the pathological to the pathetic.

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Cupid's poisoned arrow

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment February 14, 2011 06:00 AM

Mysteriously rooted in ancient Roman mating rituals and named after a martyred priest granted sainthood, Valentine's Day has long been a holiday for lovers. It is also a special day for manipulative, controlling, narcissistic con men to turn up the charm and profess their love, superficial though it may be.

Ladies, you know the type. He's shallow, disappointing, selfish and self-centered for 364 days of the year. But come Feb. 14, he's a Prince Charming facsimile, saying all the right things and bearing all the right gifts to try and persuade you that his love is true. Then literally overnight, that same sociopathic shell of a man reappears the next day.

Fifty-year-old Jamie Stonier of Concord keenly remembers Valentine's Day, 2003 -- the last she shared with her ex-husband Harold, a handsome military man whom she had fallen for at first glimpse some five years earlier at their 20th high school reunion. It didn’t take long after their marriage and the birth of their son for the relationship to sour. Jamie couldn't cope anymore with his rigid, arrogant, domineering personality, a change in him that emerged once the honeymoon was over.

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Mortimer: Inspired by love?

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment September 21, 2010 06:30 PM

You may find the words of Thomas J. Mortimer, written in the hours after had had allegedly slaughtered his wife, mother-in-law and two young children, incredibly bizarre. Whereas a quarrel over a bounced check to the IRS may have precipitated a bloodbath, the distraught husband/father apparently believed that his son and daughter would be better off dead--as he put in, "in a much better place than they could ever be living with Laura and living with me.’’

It is difficult for most people to fathom that someone could murder their own children, not in rage, but for love--albeit a twisted expression of affection and devotion. Although family mass murderers typically act out of anger and the desire for revenge, some are inspired to kill to spare their loved ones from misery and hardship. Overwhelmed with depression and despair, they see life as just too unbearable an existence.

In what has been termed “suicide by proxy,” a husband/father who is despondent over the fate of the family unit, takes not only his own life but also those of his children and sometimes his wife, in order to protect them all from the pain and suffering. He see his family--especially the children--as an extension of himself; killing them becomes part of his own suicidal act. And sometimes they reason that by killing them all, the family will be reunited spiritually in a better life after death.

It is a theme that we've seen before--too often before. In 1992, for example, Kenneth Seguin of Holliston, just prior to butchering his wife with an ax, took his two children for a ride, sedated them with sleeping pills, and then slit their throats. According to their attorney, J.W. Carney, Seguin had hoped to reunite his family in heaven.

Some cases of family mass murder appear to involve at least some degree of ambivalence between revenge and loyalty. Such mixed feelings can be seen, for example, in the 1991 case of a 39-year-old suicidal father, James Colbert of Concord, New Hampshire, who strangled his wife out of jealousy and then killed his three daughters to protect them from becoming orphans.

In the end, Mortimer did not take his own life, although he had designs to do so. Regardless of how despicable we feel about what he allegedly did to his family, his motives could still have had an element of love.


Author's note: I have returned from a brief end-of-summer break. You can follow me on twitter at @jamesalanfox for notifications of new blog postings. Also, you can find me on the Web at www.jamesalanfox.com or contact me by e-mail at j.fox@neu.edu.

A tale of two funerals

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 24, 2010 05:00 PM

It is all too easy, while spending decades writing about violence and those who perpetrate horrible crimes, to lose touch with the pain and suffering of victims. And when researching and analyzing murder for a living, the victims and their stories often seem like footnotes to the larger questions of “who did it?” and “why?” Just as surgeons must separate themselves emotionally from their work in the operating room, career true-crime writers and journalists must maintain a certain emotional distance in order to stay focused on the most inhumane acts imaginable.

At the same time, there is the danger of becoming overly dispassionate. A certain level of sensitivity is necessary to appreciate the mix of horror and tragedy that underlies the crimes we examine. For that reason, it is a good idea occasionally to attend the funerals of murder victims, those whose demise serves as the basis for our craft.

Two primary areas of my work over many years have been urban youth violence and family mass murder. And so I attended today’s funeral in Winchester for the four members of the Stone/Mortimer family murdered last week allegedly by their husband/father/son-in-law, just as I did last month for 14-year-old Jaewon Martin who was gunned down in Dorchester while playing basketball.

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Truth behind mass murder may not surprise

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment June 17, 2010 10:45 AM

A 41-year-old woman, her two young children and her mother were found dead yesterday inside their Winchester home, and her husband -- Thomas Mortimer IV -- has been arrested in connection to the quadruple homicide. This is the kind of heart-wrenching story with so many perplexing questions that, unfortunately, we’ve encountered far too many times before.

Even though the person responsible and the motives for the crime remain in doubt, there are some common characteristics of mass murders that can help us make some sense of this seemingly senseless crime. As it happens, this most recent tragedy appears to fit the mold in many respects.

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Murder spike is an aberration

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment May 16, 2010 01:00 PM

Newton’s Law of gravity applies just as well to the typical swings in crime statistics: What goes up, must come down.

According to today’s lengthy Globe story about intimate-partner homicide, the authorities are apparently scratching their heads about the recent spike in such killings. But the surge is likely nothing more than a statistical aberration, which in time will dissolve as the level drops back to its norm.

The figure below displays the annual count of female homicide victims killed by intimate partners (husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends) here in Massachusetts from 1976 through 2008 (the most recent year for which systematic data are available). The previous spikes in 1995 and 2007, both of which prompted a flurry of news stories speculating over the causes, were followed by immediate downturns to more typical levels.

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Absurd thinking on Bishop case

Posted by James Alan Fox, Crime and Punishment April 14, 2010 02:41 PM

I’ve heard more than a few absurd things said by cops during my thirty-plus years as a criminologist. But a remark from the lips of retired officer Timothy Murphy of the Braintree Police Department takes the cake--or at least enough donuts to feed the entire police force. No contest, Officer Murphy wins the competition handcuffs down.

Commenting on why he and others failed to consider seriously enough the possibility that Amy Bishop’s1986 fatal shooting of her brother Seth wasn’t an accident as she and her family claimed, Murphy noted, “Nobody would do something like that,” apparently presuming that sibling rivalries never rise to murderous levels.

All Officer Murphy had to do was to take a peek at the FBI’s annual crime report, which at that time was distributed to all law enforcement agencies, to see that 1.2% of criminal homicides back then--or about 250 cases nationally--involved siblings.

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About the author

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." More »

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