In California, a 3-year-old girl is shot to death by gang members because the car she is in made a wrong turn. In Pennsylvania, a 19-year-old who had fought his way back from cancer is shot to death by a teenage girl who apparently wanted cash.
In Washington, a college freshman is killed on her porch by a bullet intended for someone else. A few days later, a District of Columbia police officer is shot in the head in an unprovoked attack. Within a week he is dead.
Headline-grabbing, random killings. Aberrations.
A developing body of statistics suggests otherwise.
The nature of homicide in the United States has changed dramatically, according to Justice Department crime data, which show that the proportion of persons slain by family members has declined sharply while the number of people killed in robberies and by unknown persons has grown in the 1990s.
Prosecutors and criminologists said in interviews that the change has been pushed by the proliferation of firearms, an exploding drug trade and a growing number of violent juvenile offenders.
In 1991, for the first time ever, better than half of the nation’s murders were committed by strangers or in scenarios in which the relationship between the victim and offender could not initially be determined. Often authorities found a body but could not readily identify a motive or reason for the death, much less identify a suspect.
“Criminologists and sociologists used to point to the fact that most murders were committed by family members or acquaintances,” said Gilford S. Gee, FBI researcher and contributing writer to the FBI Uniform Crime Report’s section on murder. “That was indeed the case, but no longer.”
Family and lover’s-quarrel murders are decreasing both in actual numbers and as a proportion of the whole, according to FBI statistics. The FBI defines murder as the willful killing of another human being. Deaths caused by negligence and justifiable homicides are not included in the statistics.
In 1965, nearly a third of the murders in this country were family-related. By 1975, one out of four murders was family-related. In 1992, a little more than one out of 10 of the nation’s homicides were family-related, according to Justice Department statistics. In fact, there were 2,851 family murders in 1992, less than the estimated 3,063 almost 30 years ago.
“The nature of homicide has fundamentally changed,” said Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “You have people committing crimes here now who are fundamentally different than criminals, say, 10 years ago. People now are much quicker to resort to violence.”
Often now the most trigger-happy killers are also among the youngest offenders, as youths make up a growing proportion of both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes committed against strangers.
The new pattern of murders has created a variety of new challenges for law enforcement, from witness intimidation to the extensive resources needed to keep pace with heavy caseloads. The national rate for solving homicides has fallen from 91 percent in 1965 to about 65 percent.
Nationally, the number of homicides has dipped a little recently, but the numbers remain high and there is now a greater proportion of the most difficult and time-consuming types of murders to solve - primarily because there is often so little evidence.
“Police are trying to figure out murders essentially in the blind,” Holder said, noting that getting witnesses to cooperate is becoming increasingly difficult.
In 1993, the most recent year fully catalogued, 39 percent of the nation’s 23,271 murders were committed by persons of “unknown relationship” to the victim, with Americans routinely being killed for their money or possessions.
For example, in 1993, there were 2,301 murders associated with robberies. Of those robbery murders, 959 were committed by strangers. But in an almost equal number of cases, police could not immediately determine what, if any, relationship there was between victim and assailant.
“A lot of robbers have always been willing to kill you,” said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University. “They just couldn’t because they didn’t have guns. Now they do.”
The change in murder patterns helps explain why polls show that most Americans remain greatly anxious about crime, despite recent statistics showing some categories of crime, including murder, on the wane, experts say.
“Fear of crime does not correspond to statistics,” said James Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University. People “respond to perceptions. These (the stranger and unknown murders) are the kind that make the news. People can empathize with the victims.”
Murders among strangers “change the ground rules for people,” challenging their long-held notion that “by taking control of your lifestyle and relationships, you can protect yourself against murder,” said Lawrence Sherman, chair of the criminology department at the University of Maryland.
Something is happening to the culture, said Holder, noting that more criminals have guns and are willing to use them, while knives and other weapons are being used less.
The change the experts seem to fear most emanates from the youngest offenders. “Without the advent of young people involved in homicide, this country would actually be seeing a (sizable) decrease in the homicide rate,” Gee said.
“The most striking change in murder victimization since the 1980s is the youthfulness of victims,” states the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, noting that the average age of murder arrestees has fallen from 32.5 in 1965 to 27.