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Can hard-to-solve one-off homicides be distinguished from serial homicides? Differences in offence behaviours and victim characteristics

Tom Pakkanen (Åbo Akademi University, Åbo, Finland.)
Angelo Zappalà (Åbo Akademi University, Åbo, Finland AND Centre of Forensic Science, Turin, Italy.)
Dario Bosco (Centre of Forensic Science, Turin, Italy.)
Andrea Berti (Arma dei Carabinieri, Reparto Investigazioni Scientifiche, Rome, Italy.)
Pekka Santtila (Åbo Akademi University, Åbo, Finland.)

Journal of Criminal Psychology

ISSN: 2009-3829

Article publication date: 3 August 2015




The purpose of this paper is to explore the differences (if any) between serial and hard-to-solve one-off homicides, and to determine if it is possible to distinguish the two types of homicides based on offence behaviours and victim characteristics.


A sample of 116 Italian serial homicides was compared to 45 hard-to-solve one-off homicides. Hard-to-solve one-off homicides were defined as having at least 72 hours pass between when the offence came to the knowledge of the police and when the offender was caught. Logistic regression was used to predict whether a killing was part of a series or a one-off offence.


The serial killers targeted more strangers and prostitutes, displayed a higher level of forensic awareness both before and after the killing, and had more often an apparent sexual element in their offence. Conversely, the one-off homicides were found to include more traits indicative of impulsive and expressive behaviour. The model demonstrated a good ability (AUC=0.88) to predict whether a homicide belonged to the serial or one-off category.

Research limitations/implications

The findings should be replicated using local homicide data to maximise the validity of the model in countries outside of Italy.

Practical implications

Being able to distinguish between serial and one-off homicides based on information available at a new crime scene could be practically useful for homicide investigators managing finite resources.


Studies comparing serial homicides to one-off homicides are scarce, and there are no studies explicitly trying to predict whether a homicide is an isolated case or part of a series.



The authors would like to acknowledge Reparto Investigazioni Scientifiche di Roma for providing the data for the one-off cases, and Dr Amy Burrell for her comments on the manuscript.


Pakkanen, T., Zappalà, A., Bosco, D., Berti, A. and Santtila, P. (2015), "Can hard-to-solve one-off homicides be distinguished from serial homicides? Differences in offence behaviours and victim characteristics", Journal of Criminal Psychology, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 216-232.



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