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A contract killing is a unique type of homicide in which one person enters into an agreement with another to have him or her kill a third person for monetary or other gain. Absent reliable baseline data, and given the paucity of research on contract killings, a reliable profile of offender and victim characteristics and offense circumstances has yet to be established. Although contract killings occur with far less frequency than other types of homicides, anecdotal evidence from news articles, case studies, novels, and historical works suggests that such killings have been a persistent part of the landscape of American lethal violence since the beginning of the country.
Several distinctive patterns of contract killing have emerged over time, including entrepreneurs, professionals/independents, and amateurs. Perhaps the most interesting change has occurred in recent decades, as contract killings have become more personalized and amateurish, been less embedded in organized underworld criminal organizations, and less frequently involved professionals. Along with this change have been variations in the motives of solicitors and “hit men” from ideological, economic, and protective ones to those that are more personal and intimate.
Contract killings involve distinctive relationships between a solicitor, a contract killer, and a victim that are different from those found in other types of homicides. Exploratory studies suggest that the emerging personalized contract killings differ from other types of homicides in important respects. Among their more interesting features are a greater proportion of females as solicitors, their taking place in suburban and small town areas as well as highly urbanized areas, the middle-class backgrounds of participants, the killings’ lack of connection to the organized criminal underworld, and the participants, both solicitors and killers, usually being White.
The process of conceiving the use of a contract killer, entering into and negotiating a contract, planning and executing the killing, and dealing with the aftermath involves various stages that begin when the solicitor decides that this is the only solution to a problem perceived as otherwise insurmountable. Next, a killer must be found and convinced to participate in the murderous scheme. Then, a contract is negotiated between the solicitor and killer, the details (e.g., choice of weapons, time, location, payment) of which will vary from incident to incident, depending on the degree of professionalism of the participants. That is followed by various specifics related to planning for and executing the killing and deciding on how the final payment is to be collected.
It is important to note that a number of would-be contract killings are never completed because the solicitor is put in touch with an undercover law enforcement officer posing as a killer for hire.
- Black, J. A. (2000). Murder for hire: An exploratory study of participant relationships. In P. H. Blackman, V. L. Leggett, B. Olson, & J. P. Jarvis (Eds.), The varieties of homicide and its research: Proceedings of the 1999 annual meeting of the Homicide Research Working Group. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Black, J. A., & Cravens, N. M. (2001). Contracts to kill as scripted behavior. In P. H. Blackman, V. L. Leggett, & J. P. Jarvis (Eds.), The diversity of homicide: Proceedings of the 2000 annual meeting of the Homicide Research Working Group. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Mouzos, J., & Venditto, J. (2003). Contract killings in Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
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