A hitman is a man who’s been hired to kill someone; when a woman takes up the occupation, the appropriate term is “hitwoman.” Although often associated with organized crime, many hitmen are in fact amateurs, responding to expressions of frustration by friends and neighbors. The kind of romanticized contract killings portrayed in the movies are just that, and the reality is that murder-for-hire is a brutal, dangerous and illegal occupation.
As commonly understood, a hitman is hired by a client who wants a third person dead. The killer may be an independent contractor who establishes an arms-length arrangement with the client, or, in the case of organized crime, may already be an associate or employee of the client. Although research in the field is limited, evidence suggests that the majority of contract killings are solicited by private citizens for the purpose of terminating an intimate relationship, such as a marriage where the proposed victim is unwilling to grant a divorce, or is worth more to the client dead than alive. Other common reasons are revenge and retribution.
There’s no legal way to hire a hitman — no online resources or newspaper classified ad section — and so the client generally advertises the need by word of mouth. In many cases, someone who hears of the client’s need will alert law enforcement, which will investigate and, if justified, arrest the client. If the client actually makes contact with a legitimate hitman, both want to retain as much anonymity as possible, hoping to avoid the possibility of being identified and prosecuted in the future.
Although a hitman enters into an agreement with the client, the law in most developed countries is that a murder-for-hire contract, like any other contract for the performance of an indictable offense, is not legally enforceable. Those who hire hitmen sometimes believe that the fact that they don’t commit the actual murder shields them from prosecution. Nothing could be farther from the truth; in most jurisdictions, the person who contracts a murder is every bit as culpable in the eyes of the law as the person who actually commits the killing. In some cases, in fact, contracting a killer may be an aggravating factor that justifies imposition of the death penalty against both the hitman and the client.
Popular culture is full of stories of real and fictional contract killers. Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, an underboss in the Gambino crime family in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, was said to have killed 19 people on orders from his superiors in the crime organization. The Venezuelan terrorist murderer known as “Carlos the Jackal,” now serving a life sentence in France, is claimed by many books and movies to have led an almost charmed life while pursuing his career as a terrorist hitman; although there’s no doubt he was a very dangerous killer responsible for multiple murders, the reality of his life is much more mundane.
The evidence suggests that the majority of murders-for-hire are carried out with firearms, but that contract killings account for a very small percentage of all murders. Crime statistics in the United States tend to support the idea that contract killings account for a minority of all murders, although the sensationalism that surrounds cases when they’re discovered tends to distort the perception of contract killing as a rarity. For instance, the Pamela Smart case, in which she seduced a student and convinced him to murder her husband in exchange for sexual favors, and the Texas Cheerleader case, in which the mother of a high school cheerleader tried to hire someone to kill the mother of one of the girls competing with her daughter, both generated headlines and breathless commentary for weeks.