Gang membership is a robust correlate of homicide offending and victimization, but little is known about the association between gang status and various abnormal forms of homicide (e.g., multiple-victim homicide, sexual homicide, and abduction homicide). The current study utilized data from a large sample of 618 male convicted murderers to empirically examine gang status and diverse forms of homicide perpetration. Gang-involved offenders were nearly three times as likely to commit a normal homicide characterized as a single-victim murder. However, gang members were 64 % less likely to perpetrate multiple-victim murder. In other models, gang status reduced the likelihood of sexual homicide by 75 % and reduced the likelihood of abduction homicide by 56 %. These findings present an anomaly in the gang-homicide literature, and suggestions for additional research are offered.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In the sociological literature (cf., Garfinkel, 1949; Mays & Keys, 2011; Pizarro et al., 2011; Sudnow, 1965; Swigert & Farrell, 1977), normal homicide, and normal crime generally, is characterized by a set of common, usual characteristics of criminal offenders, their victims, and the modal ways that the criminal justice system dispenses with these cases (e.g., routine plea bargaining, presumption of guilt of the offenders, etc.). The concept dovetails with seminal research on homicide by Wolfgang (1958) which showed that the preponderance of homicides involved offenders and victims who shared many social statuses, and that the homicide itself manifested as the result of mundane, normal interactions. In the current study, normal homicide is defined as a murder involving one victim. In contrast, abnormal homicides in the current study refer to murders that involve multiple victims or instrumental motives such as the sexual assault or abduction of the victim during the course of the murder.
Although gang-perpetrated mass murders occur, they are rare. Pyrooz, Wolfe, and Spohn (2011) recently examined case rejection factors among 614 homicide suspects as part of Operation Hardcore, a specialized prosecution unit that focused on prosecuting gang homicides. The mean number of victims in these cases was slightly more than a single victim (M = 1.35). Moreover, there data supported the idea that gang homicides are normal homicides that receive perfunctory attention from the justice system. In gang homicides involving a single victim, 64 % of cases were rejected for prosecution. In cases with at least four victims, just 2 % were rejected for prosecution.
The data collected by DeLisi and Scherer are unfortunately raw criminal justice data that lack important background factors that could be used to model pathways into gang involvement and various forms of homicide perpetration. Recently, researchers have used propensity score matching designs (DeLisi, Barnes, Beaver, & Gibson, 2009; Gibson, Miller, Jennings, Swatt, & Gover, 2009; Gibson, Swatt, Miller, Jennings, & Gover, 2012; Haviland, Nagin, Rosenbaum, & Tremblay, 2008; Ozer & Engel, 2012) to examine the selection, facilitation, and enhancement models for gang involvement, but the current data limitations precluded such analyses.
There are a host of definitional issues and measurement issues relating to the factors that inform gang membership, gang involvement, and gang-involved crime (cf., Bolden, 2012; Bouchard & Spindler, 2010; Esbensen, Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001; Pyrooz & Decker, 2011). The current authors acknowledge these concerns and were limited by the single-item measure of gang membership found in these secondary data.
Myers and colleagues (1998) estimated that juvenile sexual murderers comprise just 1 % of the juvenile murderer population and are extraordinarily disturbed emotionally and behaviorally.
Barker, T., & Human, K. M. (2009). Crimes of the Big Four motorcycle gangs. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37, 174–179.
Berg, M. T. (2012). The overlap of violent offending and violent victimization: Assessing the evidence and explanations. In M. DeLisi & P. J. Conis (Eds.), Violent offenders: Theory, research, policy, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 17–38). Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Berg, M. T., & DeLisi, M. (2006). The correctional melting pot: race, ethnicity, citizenship, and prison violence. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34(6), 631–642.
Bolden, C. L. (2012). Liquid soldiers: fluidity and gang membership. Deviant Behavior, 33, 207–222.
Borgeson, K., & Kuehnle, K. (Eds.). (2012). Serial offenders: Theory and practice. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Bouchard, M., & Spindler, A. (2010). Groups, gangs, and delinquency: does organization matter? Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 921–933.
Braga, A. A. (2012). Focused deterrence strategies and the reduction of gang and group-involved violence. In M. DeLisi & P. J. Conis (Eds.), Violent offenders: Theory, research, policy, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 259–280). Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Braga, A. A., & Weisburd, D. L. (2012). The effects of focused deterrence strategies on crime: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49(3), 323–358.
Campbell, J. H., & DeNevi, D. (Eds.). (2004). Profilers: Leading investigators take you inside the criminal mind. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Craig, W. M., Vitaro, F., Gagnon, C., & Tremblay, R. E. (2002). The road to gang membership: characteristics of male gang and nongang members from ages 10 to 14. Social Development, 11, 53–68.
Cunningham, M. D., Sorensen, J. R., Vigen, M. P., & Woods, S. O. (2010). Inmate homicides: killers, victims, motives, and circumstances. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 348–358.
Decker, S. H. (2003). Policing gangs and youth violence. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2002). Gangs, gang homicides, and gang loyalty: organized crimes or disorganized criminals? Journal of Criminal Justice, 30, 343–352.
Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2011a). On the validity and reliability of gang homicide: a comparison of disparate sources. Homicide Studies, 14, 359–376.
Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. (2011b). Timing is everything: Gangs, gang violence, and the life course. In M. DeLisi & K. M. Beaver (Eds.), Criminological theory: A life-course approach (pp. 149–164). Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett.
DeLisi, M., Barnes, J. C., Beaver, K. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2009). Delinquent gangs and adolescent victimization revisited a propensity score matching approach. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36(8), 808–823.
DeLisi, M., Kosloski, A., Sween, M., Hachmeister, E., Moore, M., & Drury, A. (2010). Murder by numbers: monetary costs imposed by a sample of homicide offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, 21, 501–513.
DeLisi, M., & Piquero, A. R. (2011). New frontiers in criminal careers research, 2000–2011: a state-of-the-art review. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(4), 289–301.
DeLisi, M., & Scherer, A. M. (2006). Multiple homicide offenders: offense characteristics, social correlates, and criminal careers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 33, 367–391.
DeLisi, M., & Walters, G. D. (2011). Multiple homicide as a function of prisonization and concurrent instrumental violence: testing an interactive model—a research note. Crime & Delinquency, 57(1), 147–161.
Drury, A. J., & DeLisi, M. (2011). Gangkill: an exploratory empirical assessment of gang membership, homicide offending, and prison misconduct. Crime & Delinquency, 57, 130–146.
Esbensen, F.-A., Winfree, L. T., Jr., He, N., & Taylor, T. J. (2001). Youth gangs and definitional issues: when is a gang a gang, and why does it matter. Crime & Delinquency, 47, 105–130.
Ezell, M. E., & Tanner-Smith, E. E. (2009). Examining the role of lifestyle and criminal history variables on the risk of homicide victimization. Homicide Studies, 13(2), 144–173.
Farrington, D. P., Loeber, R., Stallings, R., & Homish, D. L. (2012). Early risk factors for young homicide offenders and victims. In M. DeLisi & P. J. Conis (Eds.), Violent offenders: Theory, research, policy, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 143–160). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Garfinkel, H. (1949). Research note on inter- and intra-racial homicides. Social Forces, 27, 369–372.
Gibson, C. L., Miller, J. M., Jennings, W. G., Swatt, M., & Gover, A. (2009). Using propensity score matching to understand the relationship between gang membership and violent victimization: a research note. Justice Quarterly, 26(4), 625–643.
Gibson, C. L., Swatt, M. L., Miller, J. M., Jennings, W. G., & Gover, A. R. (2012). The causal relationship between gang joining and violent victimization: a critical review and directions for future research. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(6), 490–501.
Haviland, A., Nagin, D. S., Rosenbaum, P. R., & Tremblay, R. E. (2008). Combining group-based trajectory modeling and propensity score matching for causal inferences in nonexperimental longitudinal data. Developmental Psychology, 44(2), 422–436.
Horton, A. (2007). Murder in the city: embedded, intractable and treatment resistant? Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16, 15–31.
Howell, J. C. (1999). Youth gang homicides: a literature review. Crime & Delinquency, 45, 208–241.
Hutson, H. R., Anglin, D., Kyriacou, D. N., Hart, J., & Spears, K. (1995). The epidemic of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County from 1979 through 1994. Journal of the American Medical Association, 274, 1031–1036.
Jennings, W. G., & Reingle, J. M. (2012). On the number and shape of developmental/life-course violence, aggression, and delinquency trajectories: a state-of-the-art review. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(6), 472–489.
Katz, C. M., Webb, V. J., Fox, K., & Shaffer, J. N. (2011). Understanding the relationship between violent victimization and gang membership. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 48–59.
Kubrin, C. E. (2003). Structural covariates of homicide rates: does type of homicide matter? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 40(2), 139–170.
Kubrin, C. E., & Wadsworth, T. (2003). Identifying the structural correlates of african american killings what can we learn from data disaggregation? Homicide Studies, 7(1), 3–35.
Langevin, R. (2003). A study of the psychosexual characteristics of sex killers: can we identify them before it is too late? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 47, 366–382.
Lattimore, P. K., Linster, R. L., & Macdonald, J. M. (1997). Risk of death among serious young offenders. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 34, 187–209.
Mays, G. L., & Keys, D. (2011). Normal homicides, normal defendants: finding leniency I Oklahoma’s murder conviction machinery. Western Criminology Review, 12, 35–42.
McGarrell, E. F., Corsaro, N., Melde, C., Hipple, N. K., Bynum, T., & Cobbina, J. (2013). Attempting to reduce firearms violence through a Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative (CAGI): an evaluation of process and impact. Journal of Criminal Justice, 41(1), 33–43.
McGloin, J. M. (2012). Gang involvement and predatory crime. In M. DeLisi & P. J. Conis (Eds.), Violent offenders: Theory, research, policy, and practice (2nd ed., pp. 221–234). Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Miller, J., & Decker, S. H. (2001). Young women and gang violence: gender, street offending, and violent victimization in gangs. Justice Quarterly, 18, 115–140.
Myers, W. C. (2004). Serial murder by children and adolescents. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 22, 357–374.
Myers, W. C., Burgess, A. W., & Nelson, J. A. (1998). Criminal and behavioral aspects of juvenile sexual homicide. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 43, 340–347.
Ozer, M. M., & Engel, R. S. (2012). Revisiting the use of propensity score matching to understand the relationship between gang membership and violent victimization: a cautionary note. Justice Quarterly, 29(1), 105–124.
Papachristos, A. V. (2009). Murder by structure: dominance relations and the social structure of gang homicide. American Journal of Sociology, 115, 74–128.
Pizarro, J. M., & McGloin, J. M. (2006). Explaining gang homicides in Newark, New Jersey: collective behavior or social disorganization? Journal of Criminal Justice, 34, 195–207.
Pizarro, J. M., Zgoba, K. M., & Jennings, W. G. (2011). Assessing the interaction between offender and victim criminal lifestyles and homicide type. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39, 367–377.
Pyrooz, D. C., & Decker, S. H. (2011). Motives and methods for leaving the gang: understanding the process of gang desistance. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(5), 417–425.
Pyrooz, D. C., Wolfe, S. E., & Spohn, C. (2011). Gang-related homicide charging decisions: the implementation of a specialized prosecution unit in Los Angeles. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22, 3–26.
Shelden, R. G., Tracy, S. K., & Brown, W. B. (2013). Youth gangs in American society (4th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth/Cengage.
Sorensen, J., & Davis, J. (2011). Violent criminals locked up: examining the effect of incarceration on behavioral continuity. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(2), 151–158.
Sudnow, D. (1965). Normal crimes: sociological features of the penal code in a public defender’s office. Social Problems, 12, 255–276.
Swigert, V. L., & Farrell, R. A. (1977). Normal homicides and the law. American Sociological Review, 42, 16–32.
Trulson, C. R., Caudill, J. W., Haerle, D. R., & DeLisi, M. (2012). Cliqued up: the postincarceration recidivism of young gang-related homicide offenders. Criminal Justice Review, 37(2), 174–190.
Turvey, B. (Ed.). (2002). Criminal profiling: an introduction to behavioral evidence analysis (2nd ed.). New York: Elsevier.
Valdez, A., Cepeda, A., & Kaplan, C. (2009). Homicidal events among Mexican American street gangs: a situational analysis. Homicide Studies, 13, 288–306.
Valdez, A., Kaplan, C. D., & Codina, E. (2000). Psychopathy among Mexican American gang members: a comparative study. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 44, 46–58.
Varano, S. P., Huebner, B. M., & Bynum, T. S. (2011). Correlates and consequences of pre-incarceration gang involvement among incarcerated youthful felons. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 30–38.
Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., Beaver, K. M., & Howard, M. O. (2009). Multiple murder and criminal careers: a latent class analysis of multiple homicide offenders. Forensic Science International, 183, 67–73.
Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., Gunter, T., Fu, Q., Beaver, K. M., Perron, B. E., et al. (2011). The severe 5 %: a latent class analysis of the externalizing behavior spectrum in the United States. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 75–80.
Wolfgang, M. E. (1958). Patterns in criminal homicide. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Woodworth, M., & Porter, S. (2002). In cold blood: characteristics of criminal homicides as a function of psychopathy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 436–445.
Worrall, J. L., & Morris, R. G. (2012). Prison gang integration and inmate violence. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40, 425–432.
Wright, K. A., Pratt, T. C., & DeLisi, M. (2008). Examining offending specialization in a sample of male multiple homicide offenders. Homicide Studies, 12, 381–398.
Wright, K. A., Pratt, T. C., & DeLisi, M. (2009). Multiple homicide offenders: arbitrary cut-off points and selection bias. Homicide Studies, 13, 193–199.
Zagar, R., Arbit, J., Sylvies, R., Busch, K. G., & Hughes, J. R. (1990). Homicidal adolescents: a replication. Psychological Reports, 67, 1235–1242.
Zagar, R. J., Busch, K. G., Grove, W. M., Hughes, J. R., & Arbit, J. (2009). Looking forward and backward in records for risks among homicidal youth. Psychological Reports, 104(1), 103–127.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
DeLisi, M., Spruill, J.O., Vaughn, M.G. et al. Do Gang Members Commit Abnormal Homicide?. Am J Crim Just 39, 125–138 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-013-9201-y
- Normal homicide
- Abnormal homicide
- Serial murder