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Although research on female offending has grown in the past few decades, the criminal justice system has remained inadequate in addressing the needs of women. Available research shows some experiences play a significant role in the lives of women that differ from men. To elaborate, this study sought to incorporate life course perspective and the individual’s perspective to show that context is fundamental to life course research. This study identified life events and turning points specific to female homicide offenders and validated the necessary incorporation of perception and attribution to future research with life course perspective.
Criminological research has historically given low priority to the role of gender as a source of criminality (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006). Although research on female offenders has grown in the past few decades, the criminal justice system has remained inadequate in addressing and responding to the needs of women (Holsinger, 2000). With most research in criminology focused on males, female offenders have been historically disregarded or treated as a footnote in crime research (Klein, 1973; Sondheimer 2001). These gender-blind strategies fail “to capture the full nature of delinquency in America; and, more to the point, are woefully inadequate when it comes to explaining female misbehavior and official reactions” to female offending (Chesney-Lind 1989, p. 6).
Traditionally, female criminal behavior was viewed as immoral or indecent, committed by women who were evil or “wicked” (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1920, p.125). These women were perceived as conniving and depicted as deliberately committing offenses because they lacked the social controls of “normal” women (Lombroso & Ferrero, 1920, p.125). These assumptions attributed female criminal behavior to an “inherent nature” and disregarded any other explanation (Klein, 1973, p.4). As criminological research progressed, social and environmental factors began to emerge as influencing factors (Bonger, 1916; Gleuck & Gleuck, 1934). Bonger (1916) argued that women committed fewer crimes because they were often protected from lives of crime due to a limited role in society; however, when Glueck and Glueck (1934) analyzed the lives of women, they found that the women’s backgrounds were significantly related to their criminal behavior. Even though women commit fewer crimes, their environment has produced situations amenable to criminality. This led some to predict that the changing social climate between the 1940s and the 1960s would have a profound effect on the nature of female offending (Pollak, 1961; Adler & Simon, 1979).
As criminologists studied the types of crimes in which women were involved, and the life circumstances of women, their offending patterns did not simply mimic those of male offenders (Shover et al., 1979). They began to examine the life histories of women to better understand the extent to which the issues and characteristics of being female contribute to patterns of female offending (Simpson, 1989; Daly, 1992; Simpson, Yahner & Dugan, 2008). These works have continued to build a body of research focused on the specific life circumstances of women. Additionally, many of the early theories of female criminality have been abandoned in favor of more comprehensive theories that are not based on males as the base measure, but instead elaborate on the female condition (Broidy & Cauffman, 2006; Simpson et al., 2008).
With the rise in female incarceration over the last several decades, criminology and the criminal justice system must give attention to the precursors of female criminality to address and respond with proficiency (Carson & Golinelli, 2013). Building on previous life course research, this study examined the life events in women’s lives that led to homicide (Daly, 1992; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Humphrey & Palmer, 1986; Broidy & Cauffman, 2006; Simpson et al. 2008; Teruya & Hser, 2010). It added to a gap in the literature of life course perspective that has failed to address the perception of life events and how these may shape the telling of life histories. For this study, each life history incorporated the individual’s perspective to show that life events become turning points due to the context of each person's perspective. Through qualitative examination, although many of the women experienced similar life events, not all life events were turning points for those with the same experiences. Other factors, particularly whether or not the homicide was attributed as a result of their behavior or someone else’s, also influenced how the event was perceived.
The limited research that is available on the life histories of female offenders, particularly female homicide offenders, shows some specific events and experiences play a significant role in the lives of these women (Humphrey & Palmer, 1986). Daly (1992) and Gilfus (2002) examined the biographies and life histories of women convicted of various crimes. The studies revealed many of the women grew up in negative family environments characterized by divorce, death, or desertion of a parent. Belknap and Holsinger (2006) later stated that higher rates of desertion and parental conflict might suggest the parenting of daughters is somewhat less important or less of a responsibility than parenting sons.
Additionally, many of the offender’s parents had legal or drug problems, while many of the women had drug and alcohol problems of their own (Daly, 1992; Gilfus, 2002; Rossegger et al., 2009). As part of their violent family environments, abuse was found to be a significant predictor of female offending, particularly sexual abuse (Daly, 1992; Gilfus, 2002; Proctor, 2004). Belknap and Holsinger (2006) found nearly three-fifths of incarcerated girls report sexual victimization with almost two-fifths perpetrated by a family member. Proctor (2004) supposed that criminality might help some women cope with victimizations because committing a crime may give them a sense of power.
Furthermore, abuse in childhood and adolescence followed some women into adulthood. In their studies of female offenders, a majority reported involvement in an abusive relationship with a significant other (Daly, 1992; Gilfus, 2002). As stated by Broidy and Agnew (1997) women more frequently experience multiple forms of abuse, excessive familial demands, and harmful conditions in the home and community. The experiences of young girls and women at different ages lead to different pathways toward criminality; yet, little is known about which experiences and pathways may lead to violent offenses, such as homicide (Simpson, Yahner, & Dugan, 2008).
In a study of violent female offenses, Ward, Jackson, and Ward (1969) found that when a woman commits a homicide, she may play one of four roles: the conspirator, the accessory, the partner, or the sole perpetrator. The conspirator instigates the crime but does not participate in the offense. The accessory usually plays a minor secondary role, such as driving the car or carrying weapons. The partner is an accessory of sorts; however, she participates fully in the commission of the offense. The sole perpetrator is a woman who wholly commits the offense herself. They found that women who committed a homicide typically acted as a sole perpetrator and offended against a husband or lover 51% of the time and a friend or acquaintance 49% of the time (see also Weisheit, 1984; Mann, 1996). Furthermore, Mann (1996) stated when a woman kills a stranger, usually for economic gain, she does so with an accomplice rather than as the sole perpetrator.
In the context of the homicide, the offense tends to be the result of a relational conflict and against a family member, intimate partner, or friend (Ward, Jackson & Ward, 1969; Wilbanks, 1983; Weisheit 1984; Jurik & Winn, 1990; Mann 1996; Sondheimer, 2001). Additionally, many of the victims were incapacitated or precipitated the offense in some way. In Ward et al. (1969, p.852), 61% of the victims were either drunk, ill, asleep, caught off-guard, or a “helpless” child. Wilbanks (1983) and Mann (1996) corroborated these findings.
Ward et al. (1969) found the weapon of choice in 35% of the cases was a knife or household item, and in 34% of the cases, a gun was used. Over the years, guns have accounted for the majority of homicides committed by females (Wilbanks, 1983.) Weisheit (1984) found 44% of the homicide offenses were committed with a gun and 40% were committed with a knife. This finding was similar to Mann's (1996) findings that 46.6% used a gun and 37.8% used a knife. Though women are more likely to use a knife than a male to commit a homicide offense, guns are, however, used more often (Weisheit, 1984; Jurik & Winn, 1990).
The majority of female homicide offenders tend to be black with the majority of victims being of the same race as the offender (Weisheit, 1984; Mann, 1996). Victims also tend to be older than the offenders. Offenders range in age from their late twenties to early thirties in most studies, yet the victims are slightly older, usually early thirties to late thirties (Weisheit, 1984; Hanke 1995; Mann, 1996).
Humphrey and Palmer (1986) stated, “female homicide offenders experience higher levels of stress earlier in life than do male murderers or nonviolent offenders of either sex” (p. 304). These women have had similar experiences to those described for the general female offending population; yet, possibly to a greater extent as noted by Humphrey and Palmer (1986). They also stated female homicide offenders are more likely to have experienced greater losses throughout their lives, including the death of parents, separation from parents by divorce, abandonment, or institutionalization, employment difficulties, residence changes, and marital discord. Family structure factors such as these have been found to elevate homicidal behavior among women (Schwartz, 2006).
From the limited research that is available on the life histories of female homicide offenders, it appears that certain events and experiences play a significant role in the lives of these women. As stated previously, the traditional theories of crime and delinquency have not sufficiently explained female crime and delinquency, particularly homicide (Holsinger & Holsinger 2005). Some researchers posit that criminology should provide different theories for women, while others have suggested incorporating gender-specific experiences with life course models to further what is known about the lives of female offenders (Proctor, 2004; Katz, 2000; Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Moult, 2008).
Life course perspective investigates the nature of the life course and its transitions as it relates to individual criminality (Sampson & Laub, 1993). Some events in a life course may modify the life trajectory of an individual. These events are known as turning points because the event was so important that it turned the path of the individual, either positively or negatively. Turning points can be a specific event, experience, or even awareness that results in a change in the life course of an individual. By understanding what life events occur and how they occur, valuable insight on the gender-specific causes and correlates of crime can be attained.
Additionally, past research using life course perspective has emphasized human agency but has failed to address how the individual’s perception and subsequent actions as a result of the life event affect whether or not it is considered a turning point that led to criminality. As stated by Elder (1985, p.35), the “adaptations to life events is crucial because the same event or transition followed by different adaptations can lead to different trajectories.” This is particularly crucial in stating a life event acted as a turning point. For one person it may have; however, another individual may have adapted to the situation differently, leading to a different trajectory in her life course.
Prior research has yet to fully consider how giving context to the telling of an individual’s life history may clarify why events constitute turning points. “We are continually locating and relocating ourselves, defining and redefining ourselves and our worlds: telling a story about a personal experience is merely another example of a process” (Schiffrin, 1996, p. 200). This process is necessary for defining and refining the concept of turning points.
Furthermore, when an individual tells her life history, she usually attributes blame for situations either externally or internally based on her perception of another person or event (Heider, 2013). Attribution theory states the person will see the action as a result of something she did (internal), or the result of someone or something else (external) (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Heider, 2013). The person is attempting to interpret the causes of behaviors by attributing blame which may reduce anxiety and feelings of remorse after an adverse event or crime. Thus, the life history, and its events and turning points, constructed by an individual are subject to the woman's current frame of reference, how she identifies herself, and how she attributes the events in her life (Riessman, 2000). She is the expert in her own life, and only she can give that insight.
Because prior research has not considered this element, the true nature of the effects of life events and turning points, from the offender’s point of view, is still unknown. This leads to the primary research question of this study: Which life events are perceived as turning points for women convicted of homicide and why? To answer this question, a qualitative analysis of life histories of 38 women incarcerated for homicide was conducted to determine the life events and turning points in each woman’s life. Understanding the commonalities and differences they all share is key understanding how a life event may or may not be perceived as a turning point affecting each woman and her pathway to crime. This information will not only advance criminological theory, particularly life course perspective, but also inform best practices regarding trauma and adverse experiences of the female offender population.
To conduct this study, both quantitative and qualitative data were collected. Quantitative data were collected from electronic and archival sources. Then the individuals were interviewed in a semi-structured, narrative, life history format.
The participants for this study were all females incarcerated for a homicide conviction prior to 2011 in a southern state. The search was narrowed to intentional homicides (i.e., Capital Murder, First Degree Murder, or Second Degree Murder) and 153 initially qualified for the study based on this variable. The Department of Correction (DOC) permitted 60 consent forms to be made available to the 153 potential interviewees. Of those, 41 women agreed to participate in a face-to-face interview about their life history and the homicide. Once the interviews began, one woman was removed from the study by the facility due to her placement in punitive segregation and two others voluntarily withdrew consent. Thus, 38 (24.52% of the population) women ultimately participated.
Offender, offense, and victim information was gathered from police reports, court records, prosecuting attorney files, the state court database, and news reports before the face-to-face interviews. Once the data were collected, this information was used for descriptive analysis of the entire population of the state, 153, as well as the interview sample, which consisted of 38 participants. Descriptive statistics were conducted on variables such as age, race, the role of the offender, conviction, context of the offense, and type of weapon. The data collected were modeled after previous research (Ward, et al., 1969; Wilbanks, 1983; Mann 1996; Field et al., 2017). Then 38 semi-structured, narrative, face to face, life history interviews were conducted lasting roughly an hour and a half.
The life history interview process developed by Thomas and Znaniecki (1918) was used to conduct the interviews, and this information was augmented with other documents and official records. No standard methodology exists for life history interviews; however, there are “several well-tested ways of collecting [and] analyzing” the data (Bertaux & Kohli, 1984, p.215). The life history method allows respondents to narrate, account for and interpret the events and people in their lives over time (Bertaux & Kohli, 1984; Musson, 2004). The process begins with the interviewee narrating her life history while the interviewer limits interjections only to keep the interview going. Once the interviewee is finished, questions are asked to elaborate on events discussed by the interviewee or to introduce additional topics (Bertaux & Kohli, 1984).
The life history method prioritizes the individual's perceptions and meanings of the events in her life. The validity of the process involves the interviewee and the researcher working together to construct the accounts collaboratively as described above (Musson, 2004). The data obtained from life histories can then be used for “basic exploration to theory evaluation” and can be triangulated with other sources, such as legal documentation, to improve validity and reliability (Frazier, 1978, p. 124).
Narrative analysis was conducted to investigate the story of each woman’s life (Riessman, 1993). Narrative analysis can then be divided into four approaches: thematic, structural, interactional, and performative (Riessman, 1993). Thematic analysis places emphasis on the content of the story. Since this study sought to understand how a life event becomes a turning point, this procedure was chosen for the data, as the content of the life history was the focus.
Data were thematically analyzed in two phases. Phase one consisted of coding for life events, and phase two consisted of coding for turning points. To develop a good thematic code that encompasses the quality of the phenomenon, there should be five elements: a label, a definition, a description of when it occurs, a description of qualifications or exclusions, and examples (Boyatzis, 1998). Following this outline, the conceptualization of the life events came before the thematic coding. This is similar to using theory-driven coding, in which themes are generated by prior literature and research involving the theory at hand (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006).
Previous research concerning female offenders were incorporated with life course perspective to conceptualize the following concepts as life events and possible turning points: victimizations, illness, drug use, family instability, criminal history, and economic marginality (Humphrey & Palmer, 1986; Proctor, 2004; Katz, 2000; Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Moult, 2008). Though not all of these events have been incorporated into life course perspective, they are known events that often precede criminal behavior in the lives of women (Simpson, Yahner, & Dugan, 2008). The events were then placed in the time period—childhood, adolescence, and/or adulthood—in which they occurred throughout the life course. Prior research suggests that the pathways to crime are age-graded, thus resulting in differing effects (Sampson & Laub, 1993; Simpson, Yahner & Dugan, 2008.). Following thematic analysis procedures, the existing themes, or concepts, were then reviewed and modified.
For phase one of data coding, as life events were found in the transcripts, they were coded with a theme name. For example, if a woman stated she began abusing drugs, the data was coded with the theme name of “drug use.” Other details of the life event were added to describe the quality and timing of the life event, such as if the event occurred during childhood and continued throughout adulthood and how the event affected the individual. For phase two, if the woman stated the life event was a turning point, the theme was coded with an asterisk.
Once complete, themes were compared across life histories to identify life events and turning points. The interviews were then divided into those who accepted responsibility for the offense and those who did not. The division was used to show the difference in perception of life events and how a life event may be a turning point to one woman and not to another, as well as a comparison between those who did and did not accept responsibility for the homicide.
Table 1 displays the offender and offense characteristics. For the interview sample, the mean age of offenders was slightly younger than the overall population of offenders in the sample at 28.74 years, with a standard deviation of 9.32 years. The range also differed slightly, with the youngest offender being 16 at the time of the offense, and the oldest offender aged 51 at the time of the offense. The age of offenders in this data is similar to past research in stating female homicide offenders were typically in their late 20s to early 30s (Weisheit, 1984; Hanke, 1995; Mann, 1996; Field et al. 2017).
Table 1. Offender and offense characteristics
Interview sample (n=38)
Context of offense (per victim n=43)
Under the Influence
As for race in the population of offenders, roughly 46% were Black, 52% were White, with the remainder identifying as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. This composition was similar to the interview sample, with the majority Black (19), 18 White, and one Native American. This corroborates Weisheit’s (1984) findings. Additionally, Mann (1996) had similar findings and suggested a higher portion of homicides committed by black women may be attributable to the southern region of the United States, where this particular study took place. Furthermore, for the population and interview sample, the majority, 56% and 66% were convicted of first-degree murder, while 24% and 16% were convicted of second-degree murder and 19% and 18% were convicted of capital murder, respectively.
Complete data for the remaining three variables, the role of the offender, weapon, and context of the offense, were only available for the interview sample. The majority of offenses were committed by a sole offender; however, 47% of the cases involved multiple offenders. These descriptives, again, corroborate prior research findings (Ward et al., 1969; Wilbanks, 1983; Weisheit, 1984; Mann, 1996). In a majority of the offenses, a gun was used to commit the homicide, 60.5%, followed by a knife in 26% of the cases. Despite the historical belief that women predominately killed with knives and poison, the past few decades have shown a gun to be the weapon of choice (Wilbanks, 1983; Mann, 1996; Shipley & Arrigo, 2004). These findings coincide with the increasing trend of gun usage in the commission of female perpetrated homicides. In the remaining cases, 5% used an object, such as a hammer and motor vehicle, to cause blunt force trauma. While the other category, roughly 7%, contained offenses committed with random objects such as an electrical cord, sports bra, or ax.
The final variable, the context of the offense, describes the specific context or motive of the homicide. The majority of homicides were the result of an argument (30%), not related to domestic abuse. One example was an argument between two women over a boyfriend that resulted in a stabbing death. Another argument occurred when a woman accused a man of stealing money from her, resulting in the shooting death of the male victim. The second most common event was a death following the robbery (21%) of the victim. There were several instances where the women lured a male victim so her male accomplice could rob him.
Prior research has shown a significant portion of female perpetrated homicides are often the result of domestic violence with the victim frequently precipitating the event (Field et al. 2017). This occurred in 11% of the cases. Additionally, an extramarital affair on the part of the offender occurred in 11% of the cases as well. The remaining offenses were committed in the context of criminal retaliation (4; ex. shooting of a rival gang member), drug sales (3; ex. shooting during a drug sale), offender under the influence (3; ex. arson while intoxicated), and an unwanted pregnancy (1; ex. strangulation of a newborn). Previous research has noted similar situations; yet, this data has fewer homicides resulting in the death of a child which is often attributed to female homicide offenders (Shipley & Arrigo, 2004).
Table 2. Victim characteristics
Interview Sample (n=43)
The victim characteristics are presented in Table 2. In the interview sample, there were 38 offenders with 43 victims. These differences were due to some offenders having multiple victims. The racial composition of the victims was 20 Black and 23 White, which demonstrates some of the homicides were interracial. This was a slight variation to the expected intraracial makeup of most homicides, particularly female perpetrated homicides (Weisheit, 1984; Mann, 1996; Field et al., 2017).
The majority of victims, 69.77%, were male. According to previous literature, this is typical of female perpetrated homicide (Field et al., 2017). Moreover, the majority of victims were either a friend or family member. Eighteen of the victims were a friend or acquaintance, 11 were either a current or past husband or boyfriend, and the remaining 5 were parents, children, and an uncle. On the other hand, nine victims had no known relationship with the offender. These findings support the notion that women tend to kill intimates and other acquaintances (Shipley & Arrigo, 2004; Field et al., 2017).
The next section entails the results of the qualitative data collected from the interview sample of 38 women, identified by pseudonyms. For the qualitative findings, the life events are presented thematically by group. If the event was identified as a turning point, it is presented in italics. In total, the women identified 328 negative life events (Table 3). Life events in a woman’s family of origin, adult families, and experiences of victimizations were found to have significant and lasting effects that possibly may culminate in a homicide.
Table 3. Negative life events
For these women, their childhoods began with family and relationship instability that continued throughout their lives. Family and relationship instability occurred in childhood for 34 of the 38 women (89%), with some experiencing more than one event. Eleven women (29%) were born to single mothers, an additional five (13%) experienced the separation and divorce of their parents before the age of seven, and ten (26%) experienced divorce before age twelve. Furthermore, ten (26%) had a father with a criminal history or drug use problem, and another twelve (32%) experienced a mother with a criminal history or drug use problem leading to further instability. Three women (8%) experienced a death of a family member in childhood, two brothers and one father. As a result of the instability, nine (24%) were reared by other relatives, such as an older sibling, aunt, or grandparent, at some point in their childhoods, and one was permanently placed in foster care.
Alexandra stated, “When my mom was strung out, she kept me around to take care of them.” Kara added “It seemed like I helped raise the kids she had” referring to her mother. All of these factors led several of the women to have poor relationships with at least one of their parents, particularly with their mothers. Additionally, fourteen (37%) stated that they did not have a relationship or had a minimal relationship with their fathers and one stated she had no relationship with either parent. Amee stated
My mom raised us all, me and my sister. When my mom wasn't on drugs, she sold them. She wasn't around a lot. My dad…I knew of him, but we didn't have a relationship at all. The lowlife brought me into this life. I call him my sperm donor. He was like a drug lord. He would come and go. I always wondered what’s wrong with me? All I ever wanted was to go to school on daddy-daughter day and take my daddy.
Elizabeth’s biological father was abusive to his women.
He laid down fake grass. He wasn’t in my life a whole lot. He got hit by a Greyhound bus. Split him wide open. My mom has a crack addiction. My mom was gone a lot. She done the best she could. I hated my mom for a long time cause I didn’t understand. I thought my mom didn’t love me.
It appears from these events that many of the women experienced chaotic and unstable home lives in childhood leading to high responsibility at a young age and a sense of being unloved by one or both parents. Furthermore, the women characterized their households as strict with little love and affection. Kathy said “I was born to a woman out of wedlock. She tried twice to abort me. She was never very loving. She treated me different than my older sister. She used to tell me she wished I’d never been born.” Mariah said her parents were not emotional.
They didn't teach us how to deal with emotions. I realize now that I am a very emotional person. If I could have come home and cried when the girls wouldn't play with me at recess, I would have been a very different person.
Nineteen women (50%) experienced a continuation of family and relationship instability in adolescence, while two just began experiencing these issues. During this time, two women experienced the divorce of their parents before the age of fifteen. Three (8%) experienced a death of a family member, one was forced to move back in with a grandparent, one left foster care, another was placed in foster care, and two moved out on their own.
As they aged, many women began “to look for love in all the wrong places” as Amee stated. “I didn’t know what it was like to have a man’s attention. You think it’s all good.” She became pregnant at 15 years old. Accordingly, eight women (21%) married when they were less than seventeen years old, and nine (24%) had children or became pregnant between the ages of 15 and 17. Many of the women attributed their relationships and pregnancies to their family experiences. Kathy stated “I got married to get out of that house. I wanted to get out of that house to get away from my mother.”
This seemed to radiate across the life histories. Many of the women felt the absence of a relationship with their mothers and several women who lacked a relationship with a father in childhood were the same women who stated they “developed fast” and were “promiscuous,” often becoming pregnant in adolescence. Then in adulthood twenty (53%) experienced further family and relationship instability including multiple marriages and children. There were eighteen (47%) new marriages and sixteen (42%) divorces. Seven women (18%) became pregnant resulting in a total of fifteen children among the women. Additionally, three women (8%) had their children taken by DHS (Department of Human Services), and another left her children with her husband after they separated. In total, 32 women had 63 children from 47 relationships. Six women (16%) had no children, but five (13%) were pregnant at one time in their life. Kara said,
Marrying him was the biggest mistake of my life. He wasn't abusive, but he had a thing for my sister. He ended up sexually assaulting her. She was 14 at the time. I knew about it and didn't do anything about it. I should have. He got into this swinging singles thing. I wouldn't trade with him, but I started messing around on him.
They were married for five years, and when they separated, she left the children with him. “I always felt real bad about that. About not raising my kids. I think it kind of made me crazy.”
The women characterized their marriages and relationships as “affairs” full of infidelity often with much older men. They also admitted to having relationships with unsavory and sometimes violent men with drug use and criminal histories. Jessica met a man who was 27 years older than she. She said,
He wasn't like anyone I had met, so that was appealing to me. I believed everything he said. When I married him, I had to give up my family. It was against my parents’ wishes. I would call them just to hear them, and I never did say anything. I don't even think they knew it was me.
Caroline stated, “We were like Bonnie and Clyde. He said he visioned [sic] me. We both share the same pain. He had me thinking he was a good guy.” She found out he had been in prison for murder before. “He would say, ‘quit listening to what people say. He sold dope, and he would rob people too. Little old me not knowing this stuff.”
Caroline also attempted to reconnect with her mother in adulthood. She was the only one to do so. Her problems with her mother‘s incarceration when she was little and being placed in foster care were exacerbated by the fact that she found out none of her other siblings were placed in foster care. She stated,
I always kept in mind that she was a murderer. And when I found out I was the only child she gave up out of five children, I thought why didn’t you love me? You see what I’m saying. I struggle with that today. I wish I had a mother like I posed to [sic] and my life probably wouldn’t turned out like it did.
It appears that the absence of love from mothers and fathers may lead to the yearning for love in unhealthy forms, resulting in negative and numerous intimate relationships further resulting in multiple children.
For all of the life events discussed, family and relationship instability was the most common, producing 43 in childhood, 28 in adolescence, and 46 in adulthood. Of the 117 life events in this category, 34 were deemed to be turning points by the women (see Table 4). This accounted for 44% of the turning points identified. Every single one described at least one event relating to family and relationship instability.
In childhood, many of the women were victims of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Twenty women (53%) experienced one or more victimizations in childhood. Fourteen women (37%) were sexually abused, molested, or raped before the age of twelve. All of them knew the offenders as a family member, friend, or other acquaintance. Alexandra said her mom was very abusive.
I thought she hated me…and she did. She's very sick. I see that now, but I didn't see that then. I finally see my mother as she is. The things that are in my head the most are the abuse. Nobody teaches you how to deal with things. They just act like they don't exist. I hated myself.
Additionally, Ashley detailed a rape that occurred at the age of 12.
My favorite cousin was on drugs. I went to visit her, and she set me up. Her boyfriend and about sixteen of his friend's gang raped me. That point in my life changed me forever. It shaped the way my relationships became. I stopped developing relationships with people.
In contrast, Mariah described sexual interactions that occurred with her brother when she was a child in a different light. “You could say sexual abuse, but I wouldn't classify it like that. Emotional Pressure. He wasn't holding me down forcing me. I did feel guilt and shame.” She reported the incident to her parents, and they did not “react the way I wanted them to.” They “swept it under a rug.” Her brother was never punished or even scolded. Mariah stated she felt more victimized by her parent’s reaction than by the abuse itself.
Furthermore, in adolescence, ten women (26%) were victimized or re-victimized. This included eight rapes, one was physically abused by a parent, and three began experiencing domestic violence at the hands of their husbands. By adulthood, nine women (24%) experienced domestic violence, one woman was raped, and one woman was robbed at gunpoint twice during drug deals. Moreover, it was found that ten women (26%) who were victimized in adolescence later described relationships involving domestic violence by the time they were adults. Melinda stated “It was soul crushing. Why didn’t he leave me? Why is the burden always on the woman? Nothing I ever did was right.” As for Brooke, when she tried to leave her abusive husband, she said, “I was gone two months before he found me. I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up, and he was standing over me with a pistol to my forehead.”
Victimizations reported as life events constituted the second highest category of life events, totaling 60 (18%) events. Additionally, the women attributed 27 of these events as turning points in their lives. Similar to family and relationship instability, more than half of the women had experience with victimization.
Eight women (21%) experienced economic marginalization in their childhood in the form of homelessness and financial instability. Two women experienced homelessness before the age of thirteen. Alexandra and her mother were homeless for almost four years. Alexandra stated, “I recall other people's parents saying ‘don't you have a home to go to' and I was like really?” Similarly, Amee said,
There was times we didn’t have a place to stay. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mom was on drugs. We moved around a lot. She made sure we had something to eat. So we never got took or nothing.
Additionally, Kara, Ashley, Nickie, and Kristen all experienced struggling financially, which was characterized by early employment, utilities being “cut off,” and statements like “we had it hard.” As they progressed through life, the concept of economic marginalization followed them into adolescence and adulthood. Twenty-one women (55%) dropped out of high school. As a result, their employment in adolescence and adulthood was minimal and at times illegal. Eleven (29%) stated they had some part-time work, even if it was only for a day. Six (16%) stated they never worked. Another six stated they used illegal means, such as prostitution and drug dealing, to sustain financially.
Karissa referred to herself as a “skid row bum” because she had dropped out of school at 13 and was a homeless alcoholic until her arrest for the homicide. Nickie also dropped out of school in the 12th grade. “I loved school. I went to alternative school most of my junior year and high school. I gave up, man. The streets were calling me.” When asked if she worked after dropping out, she replied “I only ever had two jobs. My homegirl was manager and would clock me in and out. That’s how I got the job. I just got it to show my probation officer a pay stub.”
Although almost all of the women experienced economic marginalization in various forms by identifying 45 life events in this category, none of them acknowledged any of the events as a turning point. For many, it appears their marginalization was so normalized they did not see it as a negative experience. Facing economic marginalization was just a part of their “normal” lives.
Eleven women (29%) experienced significant events with illness in childhood. Five (13%) more identified an illness occurring in adolescence. Some of the illnesses were directly experienced, while others were observed in a family member. The two observed experiences consisted of one woman watching her sister go “crazy” and “try to kill herself,” and the other was of a woman whose younger sister was ill as a child and received a lot of attention leading to resentment. Arlene stated,
I always wanted to die. I can’t remember a time when I wanted to live. It wasn’t until I came to prison that I knew it wasn’t natural to feel that way. I heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. My mom experienced the same things as a child. It was a family secret. A lot of things can mess with a child’s mind. I tried to kill myself several times. I hated my life.
Similarly, Mariah experienced depression and attempted suicide in the 10th grade. Her brother had touched her sexually for three years. She stated,
I felt a lot of guilt and shame for what happened with my brother. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t know how to. I never really had a lot of friends. I didn’t know how to handle any of it or talk about it. I didn’t want to go to school because nobody liked me, nobody wanted to talk to me. By the time the crime happened, I was on five different medications.
In adolescence, Amy was suicidal after the death of her mother.
I went to wake her up one morning, and she would not get up. I was angry with HIM for … ever. Mentally I was screwed up, but I had a child. I literally went crazy. I didn't accept she was gone. I became a cutter. One pain takes away another.
Illness continued to play a factor for eight women (21%) in adulthood. Five (13%) reported the illness was of someone else, while three (8%) experienced it herself. Three endured the death of significant individuals, before the homicide. Those included two children and a father. Arlene’s father was diagnosed with cancer when she was 30 years old. She said,
I took care of my dad. It was harder than I thought and my fucking brothers didn’t help me at all. When I found out he wasn’t gonna live, it did something to me. That was a blow I wasn’t ready for. I thought my dad would live forever. My dad was Superman. It went downhill very quickly. He was six feet and dropped down to 80 pounds. You could see every bone, every rib. You could see his heart beat. I didn’t understand…I love my dad. That was my knight in shining armor. He didn’t want to leave me. I don’t think I mourned my daddy’s death. I took so many pills. I even took my own drugs.
Similarly, Jessica’s father developed Alzheimer’s when she was a young adult. “My mom wasn't the caretaker type. She wasn't wired for that. He died while I was in Florida. He died, and nobody told me. They had a funeral, and I never knew. I could never get over that.”
Of those who experienced the illness herself, one was admitted to a psychiatric facility for an act of violence. Another sought treatment for depression after rape and was diagnosed with depression and “paranoid schizophren[ia].” Furthermore, one attempted suicide and received multiple diagnoses including “mental retardation, manic-depressive, bipolar, anti-social, and depression.”
Overall, experiences with illnesses were the least reported life event; however, it was the third highest turning point identified with 12 out of the 28 events being perceived as a turning point. Though these events may not be as frequent as others, they tend to have a higher likelihood of being identified as a turning point. This could be due to the depth of trauma that occurs with the death of a loved one, or the continuous trauma a mental health issue may bring.
Three women (8%) reported drug use before the age of thirteen, one as young as four years old. The drugs included alcohol, methamphetamine, and marijuana use. All three women who reported drug use in childhood continued to use drugs throughout adolescence and adulthood, and some added the use of acid, prescription pills, crack cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. An additional thirteen women (34%) began drug use in adolescence.
When Alexandra was four years old, she was given alcohol by an uncle. A year later she consumed a white powdery substance that belonged to her mother. “I ate the whole thing of it off my mom's dresser. She wanted to wring my neck.” She said this lead to her usage of acid and methamphetamine by the time she was a teenager. “My drug habit got so bad I was trying to kill myself.” Similarly, Karissa stated she was an alcoholic by the age of 16. “I could not function. Wound up in a hospital many times to have my stomach pumped. That was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Eleven other women (29%) initiated drug use in adulthood, six (16%) of whom were well into their thirties when this occurred. The drugs consisted of marijuana, cocaine, prescription pills, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. Caroline stated she got into drugs when,
I was 18. I got down there [Miami], and I got on powder. He [her boyfriend] got me on crack cocaine. I likeded [sic] the feeling. I started hiding it from my family. It made me have evil thoughts. I’m a big plotter.
Jessica was 23 when she began drinking alcohol. “I started drinking. I couldn’t really deal with anything without a drink. I was trying to drown the marriage with alcohol. It was every day, two or three a night.”
In total, the women reported 33 life events about drug use, yet, only three were perceived as turning points. Though some described their drug use as “just a phase” or “experimenting,” several described the drug use as coinciding with an unstable relationship. It was a form of escape or due to pressure from a significant other. This may be why the actual drug use was less likely to be perceived as a turning point, but rather the relationship in which the drug use occurred was the actual turning point.
For four women (11%), delinquent and criminal behavior began in early childhood from the ages of seven to twelve years old. They were taken into custody for hitchhiking, running away, stealing, bringing a knife to school, and fighting. One reported she began selling marijuana as well. Only two served time in juvenile detention. Three of these women (8%) continued their criminal behavior into adolescence. They were arrested for aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, truancy, and drug-related offenses. Only one stated she served time in a facility for her offense. Additionally, one woman self-reported prostitution but stated she was never arrested.
An additional 14 (37%) initiated criminal behavior in adolescence. They were taken into custody or arrested for driving a stolen vehicle, public intoxication, stealing, threatening a teacher, selling drugs, stealing a car, smoking marijuana, truancy, arson, and assault. These women also self-reported burglarizing a house, assisting in drug deals, running away, and robbery. Arlene stated:
My teenage years was like what a guy’s life would be: drug selling, fights…It was all a part of God’s plan. It went from having to fight every day to toting pistols. I had to adapt to my surroundings. It was considered to be a man’s world. I was forced into it by my dad. He came and got me in the 6th grade and said he was gonna show me how to get money, so I didn't have to be a whore. I went from the 6th grade to selling drugs full time, dog. I never had a life. It totally went against what I was trying to do in life. He would give me the world, but damn he would take it back.
She stated she sold crack cocaine and marijuana. As a result, she was arrested once and received a sentence of probation.
Nickie, who acknowledged participating in criminal behavior as an adolescent, continued her criminal behavior into adulthood. At eighteen years old, she was charged with fleeing an officer, theft, and breaking and entering. She received probation for all of the charges. After that is when she started robbing people. “That shit is an addiction. Selling drugs and robbery was my way of living. I didn’t rob people that worked hard. I robbed the robbers. I took from the takers.” Additionally, she worked as a drug dealer selling crack cocaine, powder cocaine, prescription pills, PCP, and marijuana.
It was not until adulthood that ten women (26%) began exhibiting criminal behavior. These women were arrested for shoplifting, food stamp fraud, DWI, public intoxication, drug-related offenses, battery, possession of a weapon, robbery, fleeing an officer, theft, and breaking and entering. Two additional women self-reported being involved in criminal activity but never being arrested.
Forty-five life events were reported by 28 women relating to criminal behavior. Surprisingly, only one woman stated her involvement in criminal behavior as an adolescent was a turning point in her life. In fact, 25 (66%) did not report a criminal history. Of the life events, past criminal behavior had the least likelihood of being perceived as a turning point.
According to Table 4, the women identified turning points in five of the six life event concepts. They were family/relationship instability, victimizations, illness, criminal history, and drug use. None of the women believed they experienced a turning point due to a life event from economic marginalization. In total, there were 77 turning points identified. Overall, the most turning points in the lives of these women were related to family/relationship instability (34/117) and victimizations (27/60), with victimizations (45%) and illness (43%) being the most likely events to be perceived as turning points throughout the life course preceding the homicide.
Table 4. Identified turning points
Researchers have shown offenders may construct identities in accordance with how they wish to be viewed by others and it is subject to their current frame of reference (Riessman, 2000; Langellier, 2001; Presser, 2004). As Heider (2013) stated, individuals usually place blame externally or internally. They either see the action as a result of something they did, internal, or the action was a result of someone or something else, external. Peersen, Gudjonsson, and Sigurdsson (2000) added that perception is another element crucial to blame and accountability. They suggested that blame may reduce anxiety and feelings of remorse after a negative event or crime. To address this further, the context of the turning points were analyzed.
The qualitative data were divided into two groups to show who took responsibility for their involvement in the offense and who did not. To ascertain whether or not the offender believed they were responsible for their involvement in the offense, the offender was asked “Looking back, how do you feel about the crime now? and “Do you think it could have turned out differently?” In most cases, individuals who identified as responsible for the offense also took responsibility for other situations in their lives and were also able to reflect on the past with more insight.
When speaking about the crime, Alexandra stated “I know I’m wrong for what I did. Nothing I do can ever fix that.” Alexandra became involved with illegal activity, prostitution and drug use, at a very young age. Her mother contributed to this through her drug use, as well as abuse and neglect of Alexandra as a child. By her early 20s, Alexandra was overseeing several prostitutes and extended her drug use to drug distribution. It was at that time when the homicide occurred. “That’s what I had been doing my whole life. That’s all I know.” She ended up killing a client for non-payment of services while she was under the influence of several illegal substances. She accepted responsibility for the offense and associated the early experiences with her mother as a turning point into the lifestyle she was leading before the offense. Alexandra stated, “Because I had no regard for myself growing up, I had none for anyone else either.”
On the other hand, Caroline’s reflection on her experiences with her mother and her involvement in the homicide were different. Caroline stated her boyfriend is the reason she is incarcerated today. He said he had been robbed and that she needed to prove her love for him by getting revenge on the man who robbed him. They “plotted to kill dude and that’s what we did.” She went with her boyfriend to the man’s house, and she shot him in the back and chest five times. Her boyfriend shot him once. She said,
He (the victim) did something to make him (her boyfriend) that mad. Do I have a conscience about this? No. There wudn’t [sic] nothing I could do differently. I didn’t think a man would have me that gone to where I’d do something like that.
She was a willing participant, yet she did not take ownership of the choice to participate in the offense. Similarly, Caroline’s perception of her early experiences did not reveal any depth or insight beyond the surface level. She continued to blame how her life turned out on external factors. On her relationship with her mother, she said, “I thought why didn't you love me. You see what I'm saying. I struggle with that today. I wish I had a mother like I posed [sic] to and my life probably wouldn't have turned out like it did.” To Caroline, had it not been but for these other people, her life would have taken a different path, or so she says.
Both Alexandra and Caroline admitted to willingly taking the life of another person, yet they both perceived their actions and life events in an opposing manner. Alexandra, who claimed ten life events and two turning points, showed an ability to self-examine, while Caroline, who claimed 20 life events and four turning points, did not. Caroline saw all of the events in her life as the external actions of others. They were all done to her. By doing so, Caroline was able to place the blame on others which in turn reduced any internal negative feelings, including remorse.
Kathy, who shot her husband, was a victim of sexual and physical abuse throughout her life. Later she lost her children to DHS because of abuse. She said,
I lost everything, so I stayed with him. Mom said if you're gonna marry, marry for money. And I did. I didn’t know any better. I don’t feel like I belong here or anywhere. Why was I even born to end up in a place like this?
Similarly, Arlene experienced infidelity and drug use from her boyfriend, nearly identical to the experience she had with her father growing up. She said, “I didn’t know how to give up on him.” After an argument about his drug use, Arlene ran him over with a truck. “I see him, but I don't see him and the next thing I know, he was hit by the truck." In stating, "he was hit by the truck” Arlene removed herself from the action. Often, women who stay in abusive relationships develop distorted perceptions, feel helpless, and lose their sense of individual autonomy (Browne, 1993). Both Kathy, who claimed nine life events and two turning points, and Arlene, who claimed 11 life events and two turning points, appear to be caught in the cycle of violence from early childhood victimizations to abusive adult relationships which may distort or diminish their sense of individual autonomy, resulting in external attributions of their own behaviors and experiences.
Additionally, some women attributed their behavior to a “higher power” which released them of blame or responsibility. Arlene stated her drug dealing was “all a part of God’s plan.” Similarly, Brittany claimed seven life events and one turning point. She killed two men about three years apart and buried them in her backyard. She stated, “Neither one of those guys deserved to die, but I think God was tired of them. I think God directed that bullet.” These statements allow her to construct a narrative that removes responsibility from her actions. It was God’s plan for them to die, not her pulling the trigger.
Originally, Christine had similar thoughts but has since gained insight into her behavior and accepted responsibility for her actions rather than attributing them to “God.” Christine claimed eight life events and two turning points. She stated:
I felt like god punished me [when she first got to prison]. That was my faulty thinking that I didn't do nothing, but I did. I didn't prevent it. I was there, and I helped rob that woman of her life.
Remarkably, some made deliberate, unabashed statements regarding their responsibility. Jamie, who claimed 11 life events and two turning points, shot her abusive boyfriend. When asked how she felt about the crime, she stated: “I wish I could dig him up and kill him again.” Others appeared to have reconciled their actions during their time in prison to accept responsibility. Jessica, claimed six life events and one turning points, stated “My first two years I spent saying if there wasn’t any co-defendant there wouldn’t be any crime. I didn’t have any peace. I don’t live there anymore.”
Overall, only 8 of the 38 women (21%) accepted full responsibility for their role in the homicide. There was no clear delineation based on responsibility and crime context. Meaning, there were homicides involving strangers, acquaintances, family members, and abusers for both women who took responsibility and those who did not. However, there were no homicides of children for the group accepting responsibility. Two women were solely convicted of killing their children and neither accepted responsibility for the offense. This may be due to the shame and stigma associated with being a mother who kills her child (Mann, 1996).
The most substantial differences occurred between the two group's identification of life events and turning points. Those who identified themselves as responsible for the homicide identified 74 life events and 25 turning points, while those who did not take responsibility identified 254 life events and 52 turning points. Those who did not take responsibility for the offense identified more than double the life events and turning points during their interviews.
It may be that those who identified fewer turning points had reflected over their life events, individual choices, actions of others, and had thus gained an insight or awareness of the events without trying to place blame on an external source. It may also be that the women who did not take responsibility were so entrenched in the multitude of events in their lives, they cannot separate their actions from the trauma they experienced. However, women who took responsibility for the offense were also more likely to place blame internally on their actions, rather than externally on the actions of others. This could be the result of an actual lack of experiences to discuss, or it could be the result of the amount of time spent reflecting in prison, but that cannot be discerned from the data.
For most of the individuals who did not accept responsibility, they had no remorse, did not want to be seen negatively, or blamed someone or something else. The women who did not take responsibility had almost double the victimization and illness life events perceived as turning points. This could be an explanation for their tendency to attribute blame externally. In those situations, they were the victim and had little to no control. Prior research has shown the longer a woman is subject to traumatic experiences, such as abuse, the more likely she is to feel helpless and lose her sense of autonomy (Browne, 1993; Field et al., 2017).
When conducting a life course analysis of life histories with the criminal population, valuable information can be gained about turning points by learning the context of the event and how the offender perceived the event. Past research has rarely asked why or how an event became a turning point in the eyes of the offender. By adding this component of perception, this study demonstrated that each individual and their life history are unique. Though many of the women experienced similar life events and turning points, not all life events were turning points for those with the same experiences. Furthermore, how the woman attributes blame or takes accountability may affect the telling of her life history.
Many of these accounts support prior literature in that female homicide offenders often experience family and relationship instability characterized by parental conflict and desertion, excessive familial demands, and negative home conditions (Humphrey & Palmer, 1986; Schwartz, 2006; Broidy & Cauffman, 2006). Women’s experiences in their family of origin, adult families, and experiences of victimizations can have significant and lasting effects throughout the life course. Notably, when those events occurred in childhood, they appeared to have continual lasting effects throughout the life course, even for those without an early criminal history. These findings support past literature concluding female homicide offenders, experience significant rates of victimizations, particularly early childhood sexual violence and domestic abuse by intimate partners leading the female killing her abuser (Mann, 1996; Field et al., 2017).
Mann (1996) and Shipley and Arrigo (2004) suggested economic marginalization creates an environment of elevated stress contributing to the increased likelihood of the commission of a homicide on the part of a woman. From the perspective of these women, though, there was no emphasis placed on the experience of economic marginalization. It was a normalized part of their reality; thus, to them, it did not represent a turning point in their lives.
Despite, the themes present in the life events and turning points, there was limited distinction based on the context of the crime between those who accepted responsibility and those who did not. Of the 30 women who did not accept full responsibility for their participation in the homicide, there were homicides involving strangers, abusive significant others, and children. This was true for the eight women who took full responsibility for their offense, except for the homicides of children. Out of the 43 victims, two were children of the offenders and neither mother, both convicted as sole offenders, took responsibility for the death of the child. Because it is a small sample, this demarcation cannot necessarily be a distinguishing factor, but future research could explore the possibility for this specific type of homicide.
Due to the limitations of the data, there are limits to generalizability beyond the women in this study. Additionally, the participants volunteered so that may have left out women who were afraid or ashamed to tell their stories, possibly limiting the variation in the data. The selection of women was not based on a randomized selection criterion, which may have also eliminated some variation in the sample of those who were interviewed. Additional limitations include the quantitative data used for descriptive statistics. The data were acquired through official and unofficial records, so it contained some missing data and lacked some details, particularly victim information. Furthermore, as with any qualitative interviewing, there is the risk for the researcher’s own biases to skew the information provided; however, I, as the researcher, attempted to control for this by reviewing the information given with each offender at the end of the interview process.
Further limitations of the qualitative data include the individual's perception and account of their life history as well as the retrospective nature of the interviews. Some individuals may not have discussed all the events that occurred in their lives, or they may have been boastful or attempted to minimize events due to how they thought the researcher might have perceived them. Each woman chose the life events she shared and decided which ones were turning points. For many of these women, this was the first time openly discussing their lives. The interview process itself was cathartic and reflective because it allowed the women to verbalize some things for the first time.
In the future, research should seek to replicate the life events and turning points identified by female offenders in this study. It should expand on the life events and turning points identified in this study as specific to the lives of women. It should also broaden the scope of criminal behavior beyond homicide offenses to see if there may be different turning points that occur depending on the offense. In addition, future research with life course perspective should include the offender's perception, identity, and accountability when identifying and describing turning points.
Additionally, the life history interviews brought about a new question for inquiry. Several women said their feelings about the crime had changed since coming to prison. Over the years, they had accepted responsibility. Is there a point at which this change occurs? Future research should examine at what point an individual may be more likely to change their perception, identity, and accountability and how that would affect the telling of their life history and turning points. This may also have an effect on the success of the types of services and treatments offered at a given time period.
Understanding why and how these events shape the life course of these women and others are crucial to the implementation of services and policies for treatment, recidivism, and the prevention of future incarceration of others affected, such as the children of these women. This is particularly in reference to stating a life event acted as a turning point. To understand the underlying processes that operate as turning points at the individual level, the context and meaning of a turning point for an individual must be understood. For one person an event may have been a turning point, however, for another individual, a similar event may not have been a turning point, demonstrating that context and perception are vital to understanding turning points. Just because two women experienced sexual abuse or family disruption or mental illness, does not mean that they share the same turning points or reactions to those events. As a result, they would need different services and treatment.
Despite the media hype, most available measures of women's violence have failed to show an increase, yet the arrest and incarceration rate for violent offenses has increased, therefore amplifying the need for evidence-based treatment and services focused on each individual’s life experiences (Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2008). As stated previously, some of these women have a chance of gaining release from the correctional system at some point in their lives. It is evident from the life events gathered by this study that these women will need a multitude of services to re-enter society positively. Many reported drug use histories, victimizations, mental illness, and a lack of occupational, educational, and financial means. As stated by Richie (2001), comprehensive wrap-around services including substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, individual therapy for past trauma and victimizations, family therapy, and occupational and educational services are all necessary for the individual, family, and the criminal justice system to successfully reintegrate these women back into society.
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Alesa R. Liles is an assistant professor at Georgia College and State University. She teaches classes on women and crime, social justice, and legal issues. Her research interests include race, gender, juvenile justice, and mental health relating to policy issues in the criminal justice system. She has published various book chapters, articles in Youth Justice, Journal of At-Risk Issues, and ACJS Today.