Murder inquiry seeks to get inside killers' minds

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The classic British murder, said George Orwell, was one that you could pore over in the Sunday newspaper after eating your roast beef and suet pudding. The murder, like the traditional Sunday lunch, would have a well-defined list of ingredients. Typically, the killer was a professional married man who had an obsession with another woman. After much soul-searching he would decide that an elaborate plan to poison his wife was the only way to resolve the dilemma with his social standing apparently intact.

To Orwell (pictured), who wrote about the decline of such killings in a famous essay in Tribune in 1945, growing social instability meant that murder was increasingly likely to be a more spontaneous affair. The "old poisoning dramas", he lamented, did at least "have strong emotions behind them".

Yet even today, amid the film imagery of drive-by slayings and terrorist massacres, it remains a statistical fact that you are more likely to know your killer than the thief who takes your video recorder.

Half of female murder victims are killed by family members or partners. And two-thirds of male victims know their killers. And unlike car thieves, vandals and burglars, the killer is fairly easy to track down. Most are apprehended or identified at the scene of the crime and 95 per cent of the 600 or so murders a year are cleared up.

But despite public outrage over crime levels and what the police often describe as "senseless killings", no one has yet thought systematically to ask the killers themselves why they do it.

Until now. The Independent has learned that the Prison Service and Scottish Office have agreed for a team of criminologists to visit jails and probation centres and speak face-to-face with 175 British killers. Publicly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, this will be the biggest study of murder ever carried out in Britain. The results will be analysed at the universities of Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.

The researchers will have access to the killers' prison and probation files, so that they can build up a life history of each individual. They will speak to domestic murderers, serial killers, child killers and sex attackers who murder their victims. Their purpose is to pinpoint the social, family and individual factors which drive men and women to kill. The researchers believe that if they can identify patterns of behaviour then potential killers can be stopped.

"In this country you are at very little risk of being killed by someone you don't know," said Russell Dobash, Professor of Criminology at Manchester University, who is leading the study. "We want to identify risk factors [and] the pathways to homicide. Hopefully, in future we can intervene more effectively to prevent this lethal violence."