WASHINGTON -- Murders within a family account for 16 percent of all big-city homicides, with wives the most frequent victims, according to a Justice Department study released yesterday.
Most of the assailants in family murders have been males, but the study -- the first to focus on family relationships in murders -- found contrasting statistics in all-white and all-black marriages.
Among white victims murdered by their spouses, 62 percent were wives and 38 percent were husbands. Among black marital partners, 53 percent were wives and 47 percent were husbands.
Parents killing their children was the second-most-frequent type of family murder, accounting for 21 percent of all homicides within a family.
Patrick Langan, one of the study's researchers, said he could not explain why the rates were different in white and black households.
Another surprising trend, he said, was that "many of the people who commit murder have a prior criminal record; it was that over half the murder victims themselves had a criminal record."
The report, which did not assess reasons for any trend, was compiled by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics from an unprecedented examination of more than 8,000 homicides in 75 large urban counties.
The cases were taken from 1988, the most recent year for which dispositions were available.
Lawrence A. Greenfeld, who directed the study, said alcohol was a significant factor in many of the homicides.
"Sixty-eight percent of non-family defendants and 48 percent of family murder defendants were drinking at about the time of the murder," he said.
Among victims, about half of the non-family murder victims and one-third of all family members who were murdered had consumed alcohol before the crime, the study found.