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Topalli,  V.,  Wright*, R. and Jacobs*, B.
Department of Criminal Justice, Georgia State University, USA. * Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri at St. Louis, USA

The purpose of this study was to address a gap in the criminological research on active offenders; The notion that risk of victim retaliation--arguably the ultimate informal sanction -- influences criminal decision-making. On its face, retaliation would appear to be a serious consequence of many offenses, especially those perpetrated against victims who themselves are involved in crime. It would seem reasonable to assume that offenders who engage in these activities risk swift and potentially fatal consequences at the hands of their victims. Paradoxically, there is the observation that a major benefit of preying on fellow criminals is that they cannot go to the police (e.g., Wright and Decker, 1997). Why should offenders elect to reduce their chances of getting arrested at the cost of increasing their odds of being killed? What is it that allows them to accept this putatively greater risk? Despite ample speculation on their part, criminologists lack any systematic empirical data on whether and, if so, how the threat of victim retaliation influences criminal behavior before, during, and after offenses. This represents a crucial gap in our understanding of both deterrence and of the contagion-like processes through which violence is contracted and contained (Loftin, 1986). Data were drawn from in-depth, systematic interviews with 25 currently active drug robbers recruited from the streets of St. Louis, Missouri. To be considered an active drug robber, an offender theoretically had to have (1) robbed at least one drug dealer in the last three months, and (2) committed at least three such robberies in the previous year. The drug robbers were located through the efforts of two street-based field recruiters, both of whom were themselves members of the criminal underworld. Our findings from these interviews indicate that drug robbers engage in a set of strategically oriented behaviors we refer to as Retaliation Threat Management Techniques (including the use of Intimidation, Anonymity Maintenance, and Hypervigilance) in order to enhance the enactment of their violent crimes and to control the ability of their victims to gain retribution post-offense.


Greenberg, J.
Department of History, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, USA

Although we in our modern litigious society are accustomed to the practice of using law in order to harass our enemies and seek vengeance against those who have harmed us, we are less aware of the historical roots of this phenomenon.  This paper explores the medieval and early modern English common law tradition that underlies the practice.  As it happened, medieval law was particularly well suited for such a use, since the appeal of felony–in essence a private suit for a criminal wrong–permitted victims and their kin to vent anger and aggression by carrying out a legal vendetta against the alleged harm-doer.  Prominent among those who waged these vendettas were parents of murdered children, widows of murdered husbands, and peasants who wanted to cheat their lords out of manorial dues.  Evidence suggests that in most of these cases anger played an important role in motivating plaintiffs who brought appeals of felony.  Two related themes–the emerging distinction between crime and tort, and the state’s attempt to monopolize the prosecution of serious offenses–are also treated, since they led to the decline of such appeals.  The paper concludes that while victims and their kin eventually lost the right to seek vengeance, in the end they gained the valuable advantage of being represented by the might and power of the state.  


Topalli, V.
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Georgia State University - and The National Consortium on Violence Research.

In psychology, empirical research in aggression and hostility has been carried  out in the laboratory using college student populations. In criminology, the study of aggression has been limited to its role in crime. The present study represents an attempt to integrate the experimental methodology of social and perceptual psychology with qualitative methods of criminology to explore the perceptual characteristics of dispositionally aggressive individuals -- street  robbers. Active street robbers (recruited off the streets of St. Louis) were administered standardized psychological measures of aggressive attitudes including The Aggression Questionnaire (Buss & Perry, 1994) and the Vengeance Scale (Stuckless and Goranson, 1992; previously validated on non-criminal subject populations). They were then asked to describe specialized video-taped visual models depicting simple human social interactions, called Point Light Displays (PLDs). Previous research using PLDs indicates they are capable of eliciting judgments of hostility and aggression from individuals based on physical and affective stimulus features (Topalli & O’Neal, 1995). Responses from the street robber group were compared with those from two control groups; demographically matched control subjects (individuals who live in the same neighborhoods as our street robbers but were not offenders themselves) and a second, more traditional control group comprised of individuals recruited from undergraduate criminology and psychology classes at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In comparison to demographically matched and experimental control participants street robbers scored significantly higher on aggression measures. Also, a significant relationship between these measures and PLD content judgments was evidenced. Finally, street robbers were more likely than both control groups to describe the PLDs as containing firearms and weapons, and depicting street violence and victimization. We contend that these results are most consistent with a motivation-based selective perception model of cognitive functioning, in which an individual's environment and environment-specific behavioral repertoire determine how ambiguous social interactions are.