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Murder-for-hire crimes fall generally into one of two categories: homicides in which the contract for killing is carried out, and cases in which, due to law enforcement intervention in the form of an undercover operative playing the role of the assassin, no one dies and the criminal offense, while still serious, is one of  criminal solicitation. The cast of a murder-for-hire plot features three principal characters: the instigator/mastermind who solicits/contracts the homicide; the hitman (or undercover agent playing the triggerman role); and the victim, the person targeted for death. Supporting players might include a cast of go-betweens and accomplices such as people who put the mastermind in touch with the hitman or undercover cop, and helpers brought into the scheme by the triggerman. These cases also include potential hitmen the mastermind initially solicits who reject the assignment. These would-be assassins, often the mastermind’s friends, casual acquaintances, relatives or co-workers, after declining to participate, either remain silent or go to the police. While murder-for-hire stories, in terms of the characters, have a somewhat common anatomy, they differ widely according to the socio-economic status of the participants, the nature of their relationships to each other, and the specific motive behind the murder.

Unlike rapists, sex murderers, pathological fire setters, and pedophiles, murder-for-hire masterminds do not conform to a general  psychological profile. They are men and women of various ages and backgrounds who solicit their murders pursuant to a diverse range of motives. Murder plotters, compared to murder doers, tend to be older, more commonly female, and are less likely to have histories of crime or violence. Given the pre-meditated nature of a murder-for-hire plot, masterminds, while sociopathic, desperate, depressed, drug-addled, or simply not very bright, are not psychotic and therefore not mentally ill enough to be found legally insane. Without the benefit of the insanity defense, masterminds, when their backs are against the criminal justice wall, tend to throw themselves to the mercy of the court.  They often cite, as justification for their murderous intentions, abuse, depression, and addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Generally, these pleas for mercy and understanding fall on deaf judicial ears, particularly when the mastermind was motivated by greed as in avoiding the cost of divorce,  benefiting from a life insurance policy, or inheriting the victim’s estate.

Masterminds believe that the best way to get away with murder is to pay someone to do it. They think that having an alibi is their ticket to success. They underestimate the  reach of conspiracy law as well as the incriminating power of motive. Moreover, while masterminds do not pull the trigger, swing the blunt instrument, or wield the knife, they do participate in the crime beyond simply asking someone to commit murder on their behalf. Although the police won’t find their bloody latents at the scene of the crime, they can’t help leaving their fingerprints all over the conspiracy. They also leave behind witnesses in the form of assassins, go-betweens, confidants, and accomplices. Most masterminds, before the murder, make no secret of the fact they want the source of their anger or problem, dead. To facilitate the crime, they pay the hitman a small amount upfront and the balance later, and give the assassin information in the form of hand-drawn maps, photographs, license numbers, and schedules. They also leave behind records of phone calls, a form of circumstantial evidence usually quite incriminating.

Some masterminds leave the murder details, the modus operandi, to the hitman while others get involved in the planning the methodology.  Masterminds who are engaged in the process, usually want the homicide to look like an accident, or a car jacking, rape, mugging, or home invasion that has spun out of control. What they don’t realize is that making a hit murder look like something else is easier said than done. Besides, the people they hire for the job are commonly incompetent, indifferent, drug addled, or just plain stupid.

Paid assassins are usually men who are younger than their masterminds. They are also more likely to have criminal records. Because of who they are, they don’t plan the hit carefully or take steps not to leave behind physical evidence. After the murder, they seldom keep their mouths shut about what they have done, and for whom.  If paid a lot of money, they usually spend it on drugs and alcohol or lose it gambling. While cold-blooded killers, they are not the cool-headed professionals we see on television and in the movies.

Murder-for-hire targets are not random victims of crime. They are people with whom the mastermind has had some kind of relationship. They are current and former spouses, lovers, parents, children, and business associates.  Targets include people the mastermind has previously victimized who are marked for elimination as accusers and potential witnesses. In cases of revenge involving masterminds who have scores to settle, victims can be judges, prosecutors, and police informants. Men who batter women also become murder-for-hire victims.

The crime solution rate for murder-for-hire offenses is relatively high, particularly when the defendant ends up negotiating with an undercover cop brought into the case by the person the mastermind either recruited for the job or asked to find someone for the assignment. The undercover operative and the mastermind meet, often in a discount store or shopping mall parking lot, where the conversation is audio and video-taped. Once the mastermind makes clear his or her intentions, perhaps by supplying upfront money, a weapon, a photograph of the target, a description of the victim’s car, and other helpful murder-for-hire intelligence, the unsuspecting plotter is arrested on the spot and charged with crimes that include solicitation of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. Occasionally, masterminds caught red-handed in undercover stings plead not guilty by reason of insanity, claim they were entrapped, or raise defenses based on the battered spouse syndrome. But most of the time they confess and hope for leniency.

Solicitation cases, while inchoate in nature, are fascinating because the police recorded conversations give us windows into the minds and souls of people with sociopathic personalities intent on having estranged spouses, former spouses, rivals, and assorted enemies murdered.  These cases reveal, in the extreme, how badly a marriage or romantic relationship can deteriorate. One gets the sense, after reviewing hundreds of murder-for-hire cases committed over the past few years, that America has become a society of depressed, drug addled sociopaths who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Murder-for-hire crimes that result in actual killings are more challenging for the police than the murder solicitation cases. This is because they involve crime scenes, physical evidence, autopsies, witnesses, and suspected masterminds with alibis they can  establish. However, compared to drive-by-shootings, drug and gang-related murders, and criminal homicides without apparent suspects, they are relatively easy to solve. For the most part, these cases make homicide detectives look good. Masterminds generally make it easy for investigators by hiring hitmen who are fools and incompetents. They also create future witnesses by casting a wide net in their search for a killer. Because they are careless and have big mouths, these amateur assassins are usually caught, and when they are, inform on the mastermind in return for a lighter sentence. Murder-for-hire dramas are less about police work, forensic science, and criminal justice than they are about sociology, criminal psychology, and American culture.

Murder-for-hire cases, from a criminal justice point of view, raise interesting questions associated with the comparative sentencing of masterminds and hitmen. Because both the mastermind and the killer can be found guilty of first-degree murder, they are eligible, in most states, for the death penalty. This is also true under federal law. There have been a few cases in which the mastermind and the hitman have been executed. But in most instances the triggerman  receives a much lighter sentence than the person who hired him. This is because hitmen usually confess first and agree to testify against the mastermind.  There have been cold-blooded killers who, in return for their cooperation with the authorities, have been awarded sentences as light as seventeen years in murders where the mastermind was sentenced to death. Although these sentencing disparities have a lot to do with the practicalities of  pleas bargaining, there may be more to it than that. Masterminding a contract murder is generally perceived as more evil than actually pulling the trigger. The particular loathing of murder-for-hire masterminds is reflected in the fact that homicide investigators and prosecutors target the instigator more than the hitman. Amateurs who kill for money, usually petty criminals who do it for peanuts, don’t shock us because they are young male criminals, doing what society expects them to do. When middle and upper-middle class people exploit these desperate and pathetic losers by hiring them to do their dirty-work, we hold them more responsible for the murder. It’s a matter of expecting more from one class of people than from another. For masterminds, it’s who they are that makes their behavior so repugnant and evil. This is interesting because a country full of masterminds and no hitmen would be a safer and less violent place to live.

Indeed, one could argue that hitmen are more evil that the people who hire them simply because they kill total strangers for the money. Their victims have done nothing to incur their wrath. What could be more cold-blooded than that? Masterminds, on the other hand, are often motivated, at least in part, by powerful emotions such as hatred, jealousy, love, and revenge. A mastermind’s emotions should not mitigate his or her crime, but neither should the hitman’s lack of social standing lessen his. Ideally, as first-degree murderers, whether it’s life in prison or lethal injection, the sentences should be the same. They seldom are.

The FBI doesn’t keep track of how many murder-for hire homicides are committed every year in the United States. Researchers in other countries have estimated that these crimes comprise one to two percent of their overall murder rate. Based on this figure, the annual number in the U.S. could be 150 to 200, many of which would include organized crime and drug gang hits.  Murder-for-hire cases featuring middle and upper-middle class masterminds is not a commonplace crime. However, for every completed murder-for-hire offense, there are probably at least ten crimes involving the solicitation of murder. Foolish and desperate masterminds and their incompetent hitmen are the reasons why most murder-for-hire cases end in an arrest instead of a death.

Every year there are a handful of murder-for-hire cases, usually involving prominent masterminds, that draw media attention. While they generate regional interest, these cases do not evolve into nationally celebrated soap operas in the O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Scott Peterson mold. Since it’s the killer rather than the victim that stirs our imagination, there is perhaps less interest in murderers who are disinclined to bloody their hands. But for people interested in the dynamics of personal relationships set against a culture of entitlement and instant gratification, murder-for-hire is the crime of choice.

What follows is a collection of short nonfiction pieces narrated from the mastermind’s point of view. The cases are arranged according to the specific motives behind each homicide. If these narratives were works of fiction, many would be dismissed as contrived and gratuitously violent  However, in narrative nonfiction, especially in the true crime genre, the fact a story is hard to believe makes it compelling.  

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com