Law School For You: Murder – Why we care

Here is the psychology behind our fascination with murder, followed by some legal discussion that will help you use the right terminology.

CCTV footage of mass murderer Aaron Alexis in building 197 of The Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, holding a Remington 870 shotgun. He killed 12 individuals on in the building on September 16, 2013 before he was killed by police. (Public domain photo released by the FBI, downloaded from Wikimedia entry on Alexis)

WASHINGTON, April 16, 2017 — Everyone loves watching television crime shows. Even before television, when we could only read to be entertained, the Bible was one of the most read books ever written, starting out with its marquee stories describing the original sin, featuring Adam and Eve, followed soon thereafter by Cain’s lurid slaying of his brother, Abel.

Now and for decades, television producers and writers have created an endless number of shows that involve murder. These fictionalized accounts challenge and tease us. Most often, however, those accounts are taken from the scenarios of real life crimes and tragedies.

Our fascination with murder is almost an addiction. Such would account for why the public cannot get enough of it, at least on TV. Figuratively, they seem almost to digest these crime dramas, numbering them among the most watched shows every night of the week. Even re-runs of crime shows on some cable stations outrank many first timer regular season network shows.

People receive a jolt of adrenaline as their reward for witnessing these terrible, televised deeds; Adrenaline being the hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating effect on the human brain. Think about the child who wants to ride the roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The child experiences the addictive physical effects of adrenaline, and thus wants more and more of it.

Murder has an endlessly addictive effect on the inquiring mind. We are almost possessed to discover the ways in which an evil deed was committed and the reasons why people kill. In the real world, we are obliged to try to understand the “why,” because understanding is necessary to any attempt to predict, prevent and protect.

We know killing is a fundamental wrong. We are fascinated because perhaps it is also a fundamental human impulse (see Cain and Abel). There are many questions we must have answered: Who did it? Why? How? Was it the act of a normal person, or of someone bad, criminal or deranged?

We all know what anger feels like. We all know what jealousy feels like. If these emotions lead to killing, are they an excuse for it? Would we have felt the same way in similar circumstances? If so, could we have stopped ourselves? Of what degree of rage are we capable?

When killing is motivated by a powerful emotion, it is often called a “crime of passion.” Then we wonder, was the passion involved a common passion we share, or was it an irrational one? Was the killing an act we might identify with at some emotional extreme, enabling us somehow to excuse it? Or was this act so far-fetched that we can easily rationalize we could never have committed it?

Ultimately, we want to rationalize we are not like the killer. We care about crime because we need to be able to assure ourselves we are not like them.

In April, 1993, Ellie Nesler walked into a California courthouse and shot to death the man who had sexually molested her son. Was this vigilante justice or cold-blooded revenge? Nesler was convicted of manslaughter, despite the clear fact that she planned the killing and intended to kill, both elements of first-degree murder. The jury apparently understood her passion and impulse.

When viewed from the criminal law perspective, an analysis of why one individual kills another involves subtle definitions and understandings. Here are some commonly held generalizations and explanations:

First, murder is defined as an unlawful killing, through a criminal act or omission, of another human, with malice aforethought when committed by a person of sound mind, memory and discretion.

Next, there are generally four labels applied to the criminal act of killing someone.

  1. Involuntary Manslaughter: The killer did not intend to kill. The death resulted from negligence.
  2. Voluntary Manslaughter: The killer may have intended to kill. The death was not a result of negligence, but may have come from “the heat of passion.”
  3. Second Degree Murder: The killer usually intended to kill.
  4. First Degree Murder: The killer intended to kill and the act was premeditated.

The elements of killing as described above are further explained as follows:

Unlawful means that the killing was not done “outside” of the law. Examples include capital punishment, justified self-defense, or the killing of enemy combatants during a war. The issue of when life begins enters into the definition. Under common law, for example, a fetus was not a human being.

Malice aforethought originally had an everyday meaning: a deliberate and premeditated killing of another motivated by ill will. The law has evolved to eliminate from the definition the requirement of actual premeditation and deliberation, as well as true malice. All that is now required for malice is to show one of four states of mind:

  • Intent to kill
  • Intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, even short of death
  • Reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk of life
  • Intent to commit a dangerous felony

Intent is the resolution to commit a crime. A defendant’s possession of tools for breaking into a safe clearly suggests the intent to commit a burglary.

Additional legal understandings include that the use of a deadly weapon allows the inference that the killer intended to kill. Intent is also attached when a death occurs during the commission of a felony crime.

Under the “felony-murder rule,” the felony committed or attempted that results in death must be a dangerous felony, such as burglary, arson, rape, robbery or kidnapping.

For someone to be found guilty of most crimes, that person must have some awareness that the act was criminal. When a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity” is entered, it is a statement that the individual lacked the capacity to understand that his or her actions were wrong.

Returning to the discussion as to why someone kills, that “why” ultimately remains the most puzzling yet sought-after answer. Nonetheless, convictions occur regularly without ever knowing the reasons why crimes were committed.

The reason for this is that motive, if understood, can help the prosecution identify and charge a defendant, but it rarely provides direct evidence in the case. For example, showing that someone was having personal financial difficulties might provide a reason why someone would want to commit a robbery. But it provides, at best, only circumstantial and not direct evidence proving the actual commission of the crime.

Neither Cain nor any other successive biblical personalities who committed crimes likely could have envisioned some of the horrific acts we see regularly in our world today. Bombs, chemical weapons, terrorism, school shootings, and church massacres are, unfortunately, only some of the sensational incidents we hear on a regular basis. Perversely, in a way, these acts will always fascinate us, although it is clear that none of the perpetrators are like us.

Thank goodness.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. The website for this business is brand new and Mr. Samakow will be most appreciative of any and all comments.

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