Juvenile Sexual Homicide

Juvenile Sexual Homicide

John A. Hunter

In 1992, police arrested two brothers, ages 13 and 15, for the rape and attempted murder of a 36-year-old woman. The crime was particularly heinous because the youthful offenders emotionally and physically terrorized the victim. After the rape, the victim asked the brothers if they planned to kill her. When the 13-year-old said yes, the victim asked if she could look at her mother’s photograph first. The youngest offender removed the unframed photo from her dresser and tore it into small pieces in front of the kneeling victim. Then, for no apparent reason, he began cutting and stabbing her. She started screaming, and when her neighbors responded to investigate, the subjects fled. As a result of the attack, the victim suffered partial paralysis on the left side of her body. The emotional scars may never heal.

This case illustrates the extremes of violence that frequently confront the police in sexual crimes committed by juveniles. These crimes raise a question of whether the criminal justice system in general and law enforcement in particular are prepared to deal with such violent and youthful sexual criminals.

The number of juvenile offenders (defined as 17 years old and younger) arrested for sexual crimes has increased steadily over the past decade. [1] Recent studies estimate that juveniles remain responsible for 15 to 20 percent of all rapes and 30 to 60 percent of child sexual assault cases committed in the United States each year. [2] Contemporary research, as well as clinical observation, suggests that the degree to which youthful perpetrators suffer from disturbances in either the psychosocial or sexual arenas varies. Accordingly, their risk of committing crimes, particularly violent ones, also differs. [3]

In an effort to understand the similarities and differences between juveniles who assault children 5 or more years younger than themselves (child molesters), and juvenile offenders who target peers or adults (peer/adult offenders), the authors conducted extensive criminal case reviews of 126 juvenile sex offenders. The larger report presents details of sample characteristics, methods of data analysis, research findings, and how officers obtained cases. [4] This article briefly summarizes several key findings from that study and presents seven cases in which the juveniles murdered their sexual assault victims. Comprehensive information on this study can help law enforcement agencies better understand the criminal activities of the most violent and dangerous of these youthful offenders.


Peer/adult offenders more often showed aggressive or violent behavior in the commission of their sexual crimes than those who targeted children 5 or more years younger than themselves. In the larger study, over 25 percent of these subjects demonstrated a moderate-to-high level of aggression, and nearly 10 percent of their victims required extensive hospitalization or died as a result of their injuries.

Statistical analysis of the study’s data revealed that the interaction of three variables associated with the offenders’ difficulty in controlling their victims predicted higher levels of aggression and violence. These variables are: 1) the sex of the victim, 2) the age of the victim, and 3) the degree of victim resistance. In general, offenders used higher levels of violence against victims who were physically capable of defending themselves and who resisted. While experts may anticipate these results due to the youthfulness of the offenders, their lack of developed social skills, and their inability to control others without resorting to force, the data indicate that homicidal juvenile sexual offenders often engage in gratuitous violence.

Offender/Victim Characteristics

The seven youths who murdered their victims ranged in age from 14 to 17, and five of the offenders were 15 years old at the time of the offense. Three of these youths were white (42.9 percent), three were black (42.9 percent), and one was Hispanic (14.3 percent). Only two of these juveniles had previous arrests–one for a sexual crime and one for a nonsexual crime. Only one of the seven youths was reportedly under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of the offense.

Victims ranged in age from 9 to 81. Four were juveniles, and three were middle-aged or elderly. Except for a 9-year-old boy, all of the victims were female. The seven victims were not related to the offenders; two were strangers (28.6 percent), and five were acquaintances of the perpetrator (71.4 percent).

Sexual Assault in Conjunction with Another Crime

Juvenile offenders who target peers or adults more often commit sexual assault in conjunction with another crime (e.g., robbery) than those offenders who target children. Approximately 26 percent of the peer/adult offenders and 16 percent of the child molesters used a weapon in the commission of the sexual crime with knives representing the most frequently used weapon in both groups. The study found that, contrary to popular belief, fewer than 10 percent of either group of juvenile sexual offenders were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of the offense.

In two of the murders (28.6 percent), the offenders intentionally tortured their victims. In three cases (42.9 percent), offenders took valuable items from the victims or the victims’ homes. The sexual assault included apparent penis/anal rape in one case (14.3 percent), penis/vaginal rape (or attempted rape) in three cases (42.9 percent), penetration with a foreign object in two cases (28.6 percent), and cunnilingus in one case (14.3 percent). In three of the seven cases (42.9 percent), the rape occurred postmortem.

Crime Scene

While the sexual crimes of both sets of juvenile perpetrators occasionally took place in the residence of the victim, offenders who chose peer/adult victims more often assaulted their victims in a public area (30 percent) than the offenders who assaulted children (7 percent). Three of the seven victims were murdered in their homes (42.9 percent), one was killed in the home of the perpetrator (14.3 percent), and one was murdered in the convenience store where she worked (14.3 percent). Two victims were murdered outside (28.6 percent).

Method of Approach and Nature of the Crime

Offenders approached victims using deception in three of the seven cases (42.9 percent). All of the murders showed an obvious lack of criminal skills. For example, the offenders knew the victims in five cases (71.5 percent), and in five of the cases (71.5 percent), offenders left latent fingerprints or seminal fluids at the scene that linked them to the crime. Experienced offenders realize that the likelihood of detection decreases when 1) they choose as victims people they do not know, and 2) they do not leave evidence behind. In two of the seven cases (28.6 percent), offenders immediately employed physical violence, while in two other killings, the offenders became aggressive over time in the context of a dating or social relationship with the victims.

Use of Weapons

In the seven cases, the killers used a variety of weapons. Personal weapons (hands, fists, or feet) were used in three of the incidents, knives in two, a firearm in one, and a blunt object (e.g., a large rock) in one. The lone offender using a firearm and one of the subjects employing a knife brought these weapons to the scence (weapons of choice), while the other knife-wielding perpetrator and the remaining assailants used weapons available at the scene (weapons of opportunity).

Cause of Death

Three of the victims died of strangulation (42.9 percent). Two had been manually strangled, and one had been killed with a cord. In both cases of manual strangulation, the killer apparently engaged in postmortem sexual assault. Two of the victims died as a result of stabbing (28.6 percent), one from a gunshot (14.3 percent), and one from massive internal bleeding (14.3 percent).

In two cases, there was evidence of overkill, i.e., much more violence than necessary to end life. In one case, this involved more than 30 stab wounds and, in the other, random multiple blows to the head and body of the victim with a blunt object. In four of the seven cases (57.1 percent), the offender left the body of the victim with no attempt to conceal or display it. In the remainder of the cases, offenders made some effort to hide the body.


In all but one of these cases, juvenile offenders committed sexual homicide against adults or peers. This finding remains consistent with the larger study where peer/adult offenders displayed higher levels of aggression than the child molesters and with existing sex offender literature that suggests that adult rapists who target their peers generally exhibit more violent and antisocial behavior than adult child molesters. [5] In addition, six out of seven cases involved female victims. This finding coincides with both the high ratio of female-to-male victims in the larger peer/adult offender sample (in which nearly 94 percent of the victims were female) and empirical evidence that suggests that physical aggression toward women often results in greater harm to the victim than when offenders direct violence toward men. [6]

In the larger study, juvenile child molesters more frequently acted alone and chose male victims, and they more often were related to the victim. By contrast, peer/adult offenders most often targeted acquaintances or strangers (nearly 85 percent of the victims). Similarly, in the smaller study, juveniles who sexually assaulted and murdered their victims targeted acquaintances and strangers. They also chose victims they could access easily. [7] All of the evidence indicates that these murders were intentional and, in at least two cases, sadistic in nature. The offenders also showed a lack of criminal skills typical of youthful and inexperienced criminals.


This study illustrates the importance of research in the area of sexual violence, particularly as it pertains to juvenile sexual offenders. Such research should focus on a number of issues relevant to the criminal justice system, including the causes and prevention of violence disorders in youths, the relationship between sexual violence and other juvenile crime, and the education of criminal investigators to recognize and appropriately deal with dangerous juvenile sex offenders.

Although juvenile sexual aggression remains an issue of considerable concern in today’s society, the majority of juvenile sex offenders (particularly those who target children younger than themselves) do not engage in physical violence and appear amenable to focused interventions by appropriately trained mental health professionals. [8] On the contrary, offenders whose actions result in homicide, as denoted in these cases, more likely used physical violence. The heterogeneity found in the juvenile sex offender population underscores the importance of developing empirically sound risk-profiling and -classification tools. Doing so will help criminal justice and mental health professionals make critical decisions concerning the disposition of cases involving juveniles.


Recent studies show an increase in the number of juveniles committing sexual crimes. These youthful perpetrators demonstrate varying degrees of aggression depending on the need to control their victims. Whether they target peers, adults, or children; relatives, acquaintances, or strangers, they can become violent and kill their victims.

Further research into this topic could address issues that would help police officers understand violence disorders in youths and how to effectively handle crimes involving juvenile sexual offenders. Working together, law enforcement agencies and mental health professionals can help identify and prevent the causes and consequences of juvenile sexual crimes.

Mr. Hunter is an associate professor in the departments of Health Evaluation Sciences and Psychiatric Medicine and a research fellow at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, each at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Hazelwood is the vice president of The Academy Group, Inc., in Manassas, Virginia, and formerly served as a special agent at the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

Mr. Slesinger is a doctoral student in the Virginia consortium Program in Clinical Psychology in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


(1.) H.N. Snyder and M. Sigmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A Focus on Violence (Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1995).

(2.) H.E. Barbaree, S.M. Hudson, and M.C. Seto, “Sexual Assault in Society: The Role of the Juvenile Offender,” in The Juvenile Sex Offender, ed. H.E. Barbaree, W.I. Marshall, and S.M. Hudson (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), 10-11.

(3.) J.V. Becker and J.A. Hunter, “Understanding and Treating Child and Adolescent Sexual Offenders,” in Advances in Clinical Child Psychology 19, ed. T.H. Ollendick and R.J. Prinz (New York: Plenum Press, 1997).

(4.) Police officers participating in the National Academy program at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, provided the reviewed records. See J.A. Hunter, R.R. Hazelwood, and D. Slesinger, “The Modus Operandi of Juvenile Sexual Offenders: A Comparison of Child Molesters and Rapists,” Journal of Family Violence, in press.

(5.) Supra note 2; and G. Richardson, T.P. Kelly, S.R. Bhate, and F. Graham, “Group Differences in Abuser and Abuse Characteristics in a British Sample of Sexually Abusive Adolescents,” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment 9, no. 3 (1997): 239-257.

(6.) J.M. Makepeace, “Gender Differences in Courtship Violence Victimization,” Family Relations: Journal of Applied Family and Child Studies 35, no. 3 (1986): 383-388; and C.M. Murphy and K.D. O’Leary, “Psychological Aggression Predicts Physical Aggression in Early Marriage,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 57 (1989): 579-582.

(7.) See also R.R. Hazelwood and J. Warren, “The Serial Rapist: His Characteristics and Victims (Part I),” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 1989, 10-17; and R.R. Hazelwood and J. Warren, “The Serial Rapist: His Characteristics and Victims (Conclusion),” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1989, 18-25.

(8.) J.A. Hunter and J.V. Becker, “Motivators of Adolescent Sex Offenders and Treatment Perspectives,” in Sexual Aggression, ed. J. Shaw (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., in press).

Case #1

A 15-year-old male robbed a convenience store and raped a 52-year-old female employee as he threatened her with a 12-inch knife. Upon entering the store, he immediately forced the woman into a back room, beat her severely in the head and face, tore her shirt, and raped her as she lay semiconscious. Then, he stabbed her three times in the chest and abdomen and left her to die. Police found her underwear and earrings on the floor of the room and recovered and preserved latent fingerprints and seminal fluids. Two weeks later, police arrested the assailant during another armed robbery. A comparison of the forensic evidence linked the subject to the murder. The offender had a history of aggravated sexual assault and burglary.

Case #2

A 15-year-old female who had been missing was found strangled and sexually assaulted. The offender committed the crime in the home of a 15-year-old male acquaintance of the victim. The offending juvenile reported that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend and had invited the victim to the home to trade baseball cards. He reported that he had attempted to kiss the girl, but she had turned her face away from him. He then strangled her, first with his hands and then with the sleeves of a shirt. The victim apparently attempted to fight back but was physically overpowered and killed. The offender admitted that after murdering the victim, he had performed cunnilingus on her. He then placed her nude body in a garbage bag and disposed of it in a garbage can behind his home.

When found, the victim was nude from the waist down with evidence of bleeding from her nose and mouth. Blood was found on her buttocks and thigh, and the autopsy revealed trauma to the vagina. However, the offender denied any sexual act other than cunnilingus. During a search of the juvenile’s bedroom, law enforcement officers found handwritten notes describing violence, sex, and death involving females. Notably, the adolescent spoke of a dream in which he killed a young girl and placed her in a garbage bag. The youth had an arrest record involving several misdemeanor offenses and had been under a psychologist’s care for depression during the 6 months preceding the murder.

Case #3

The parents of a 9-year-old boy reported him missing. Three days later, friends of the missing boy found blood in a wooded area near the victim’s home and called the police. At the base of a tree where the offender and victim had previously shot paper targets, the police found an indentation with a blood trail and two unfired .22-caliber bullets. Searchers followed the blood approximately 214 feet and found the child’s partially clothed body beneath a tree. He had been shot twice in the head, and his pants had been pulled below his knees. Semen found in his underwear was later matched to a 14-year-old male acquaintance.

Initially, the adolescent denied committing the crime. He later confessed but claimed that he and the victim had been raking leaves together and that he had accidently shot the victim. He attempted to stage the killing as a stranger-to-stranger sexual murder by lowering the boy’s pants and underwear. He then intentionally shot the victim a second time to “make sure he was dead.” The offender denied sexually assaulting the boy. He was indicted not only for murder and sexual assault but also for hindering an investigation and falsifying physical evidence (he had dragged the body away from the murder site and attempted to hide it under a tree). The offending adolescent had no previous arrest record.

Case #4

An 81-year-old female allowed a 15-year-old male stranger into her home after he asked to use the telephone. The adolescent physically assaulted and overpowered her. He then sexually assaulted her with a foreign object. Finally, the perpetrator strangled the victim with his hands and covered her nude body with a blanket. He also searched her bedroom and dumped the contents of her purse on the dining room table. When his parents found items belonging to the victim, they notified the police, who used latent fingerprints found in the victim’s residence to connect the adolescent to the crime. The subject had no previous criminal history and told the police that he could only recall seeing a knife and “going berserk,” later finding himself in the field of a nearby school.

Case #5

A passerby found the body of a 15-year-old female under a bridge. She was partially clothed and lying on her back. The offender had beaten the victim on her face, head, neck, chest, and back with a piece of concrete and had sexually assaulted her, using a sharp stick that had per-forated her uterus and bladder. The police found a number of personal belongings at the scene, including the victim’s wallet, comb, shoes, and clothing, as well as a cup of beer and a pack of cigarette papers.

The victim’s mother had reported her missing the day before, advising the police that she had not returned from a party. The killer, a 15-year-old male who had known the victim for approximately 9 months, had been her date. Witnesses had seen them leaving the party together. A search of the subject’s home revealed that his shoes, clothing, and wristwatch were stained with the victim’s blood. According to the offender, he had been engaging in consensual sexual intercourse with the victim when he experienced impotence. When the victim ridiculed him for his poor performance, he “went nuts,” beating her with both fists and then a large piece of concrete. The assailant had no previous arrest record.

Case #6

A 54-year-old female was found in her home, strangled and raped, several days after her death. The front door was ajar, and there were no signs of a struggle. The victim’s car was located several days later, parked in the lot of a school. Four days after the discovery of the body, the assailant, a 15-year-old male who knew the victim and lived on the same street, was arrested as he entered the car using the victim’s keys. Latent prints in the car and residence belonged to the young killer, and he confessed that he had gained entry into the victim’s home under the pretext of using her clothes dryer. The adolescent advised that after using the dryer, he pretended to leave the victim’s home, but instead hid, attacked her using a pillow to cover her face, and then strangled her with a telephone cord. He stated that he raped her after her death. Following the postmortem sexual assault, he fled and took approximately $2.25 in change, as well as the victim’s car.

Case #7

A 17-year-old male forcibly entered the home of two young children while they were under the care of a 13-year-old female babysitter. The sounds of a struggle woke the children, and one child advised that she had heard the babysitter threatening to tell the assailant’s mother (the victim knew her assailant–he was her sister’s boyfriend). The children then witnessed the assailant attempting to rape the babysitter. He strangled her and stabbed her more than 30 times with a 12-inch butcher knife from the home. In addition to the stab wounds, the victim also suffered wounds to both hands as she attempted to defend herself. The assailant had entered the residence by removing several plants and a screen from the kitchen window, possibly in an attempt to stage the offense as a stranger-to-stranger crime. The subject left via the front door of the home, making no effort to conceal the victim prior to leaving. Police found latent fingerprints at the point of entry and matched them to the killer. He had been on bail p ending court certification as an adult involving a prior burglary and assault charge.

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