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What is a Hitman: Understanding the Role and Legal Implications

Editorial Team
Updated May 16, 2024
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What is a Hitman?

Understanding the dark world of contract killings begins with the question: what is a hitman? A hitman is an individual, often male, hired to commit murder, a role that transforms to 'hitwoman' when performed by a female. While the media may paint a picture of a glamorous underworld professional, the reality is far from it. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the majority of contract killings are carried out by those outside of organized crime, including amateurs. These crimes are not only heinous but also carry severe legal consequences, reflecting the grim and perilous nature of this illegal activity.


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.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Editorial Team
By Editorial Team
Our Editorial Team, made up of seasoned professionals, prioritizes accuracy and quality in every piece of content. With years of experience in journalism and publishing, we work diligently to deliver reliable and well-researched content to our readers.
Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On Jan 23, 2015

One of my very favorite episodes of "The Closer" TV show involves one of the detectives going undercover as a hit man to kill a woman's husband. Jennifer Coolidge guest-starred, and for a show about murder, it was one of the funniest shows I've ever seen. Way funnier than most sitcoms. But "The Closer" usually had some humor in it.

Even though the thought of hiring a hitman has been tempting a few times, I know my conscience would hurt me. I also wouldn't want to actually deal with those people. After all -- they kill for a living. What's to stop them killing me after they get their money? The dead tell no tales.

By Grivusangel — On Jan 22, 2015

We used to say you could go to Tupelo and hire a hit man for $50 when I was in high school. I have no idea whether that was actually true or not, but we used to say it.

We had a murder case in our town several years ago, accusing a woman of hiring a man to kill her husband. She was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, and the man was convicted of capital murder. In exchange for life without parole, he said the wife paid him $2,000 to do the job. Amazing -- a human life is worth $2,000 to that man. It was a fairly gruesome case, and both parties are in prison for life, which is where they need to be.

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Our Editorial Team, made up of seasoned professionals, prioritizes accuracy and quality in every piece of content. With years of experience in journalism and publishing, we work diligently to deliver reliable and well-researched content to our readers.
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