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A contract killing is a form of murder, in which one party hires another party to kill a target individual or group of people. It involves an illegal agreement between two or more parties in which one party agrees to kill the target in exchange for some form of payment, monetary or otherwise. Either party may be a person, group, or an organization.
Throughout history, contract killing has been associated with organized crime and with vendettas. For example, in recent United States history, the gang Murder, Inc. committed hundreds of murders in the 1920s to the 1940s on behalf of the National Crime Syndicate.
Contract killing provides the hiring party with the advantage of not having to be directly involved in the killing. This makes it more difficult to connect said party with the murder and decreases the likelihood of establishing guilt for the committed murder, because the hiring party did not commit the murder; they only enabled it to happen. It is also often used by parties who do not have the ability to carry the killing themselves, such as a spouse contracting the murder of their partner.
In the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries, a contract to kill a person is void, meaning that it is not legally enforceable. Any contract to commit an indictable offense is not enforceable. Thus, if a hitman takes the money but then fails or refuses to perform, the customer cannot sue for specific performance or for damages for breach of contract. Conversely, if the hitman performs the killing as promised but the customer refuses to pay, the hitman cannot sue the customer for monetary damages.
Furthermore, both the actual killer and the person who paid the killer can be found guilty of murder. Indeed, the acts of merely negotiating and paying for a contract killing (that is never actually carried out) are themselves punishable as attempted murder, as they constitute the "substantial step" towards a crime which are essential for imposing liability for an attempted crime.
In some U.S. jurisdictions with capital punishment, a contract killing may be a special circumstance that allows for the murderer to receive the death penalty.
A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology of 162 attempted or actual contract murders in Australia between 1989 and 2002 indicated that the most common reason for murder-for-hire was insurance policies payouts. The study also found that the average payment for a "hit" was $15,000 and that the most commonly used weapons were firearms. Contract killings accounted for 2% of murders in Australia during that time period. Contract killings also make up a relatively similar percentage of all killings elsewhere. For example, they made up about 5% of all murders in Scotland from 1993 to 2002. According to America's Most Wanted, Walker County, Alabama is the #1 place in America to hire a hitman.
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