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A death threat is a threat, often made anonymously, by one person or a group of people to kill another person or group of people. These threats are often designed to intimidate victims in order to manipulate their behaviour, in which case a death threat could be a form of coercion. For example, a death threat could be used to dissuade a public figure from pursuing a criminal investigation or an advocacy campaign.
A person commits the crime of coercion if the person compels another to engage in conduct from which there is a legal right to abstain or abstain from conduct in which there is a legal right to engage, by means of instilling in the person who is compelled a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the person who makes the demand or another may inflict physical injury on anyone....
Uttering death threats is a criminal offence in Canada. Paragraph 264.1(1) of the Criminal Code explicitly forbids uttering, conveying or causing a person to receive a threat “to cause death [...] to any person”. Threats of many kinds are criminalised in Canada. These include (a) the threat to cause death or bodily harm to any person; (b) the threats to burn, destroy or damage property; and (c) the threat to kill, poison or injure an animal belonging to a person. Additionally, paragraph 265(1)(b) of the Criminal Code provides that the imminent threat of an assault is an assault in itself. It should also be highlighted that committing a criminal offence against a partner or an ex-partner is appreciated as an aggravating factor upon sentencing.
Uttering threats in a domestic context, including post-separation, can reveal the presence of coercive control within a relationship. Researchers Isabelle Côté and Simon Lapierre explain that threats can be a tool within a pattern of coercive control, and therefore part of “a series of repetitive strategies, some more violent and others not, whose cumulative effects must be analysed in their broader context of domination”. From this perspective, an abusive (ex-)partner maintains control and dominance, and in doing so disempowers his victim, by using threats and other coercive control tactics, which may include gaslighting, harassment, degradation, and physical and sexual violence.
Death threats, and coercive control more generally, are a predictor of aggravated violence, including femicide and filicide. Lapierre and Côté report in particular the example of Daphnée Huard-Boudreault who, in 2017, was murdered by her ex-partner after he posted death threats against her on social networks.
The case R v RJ exemplifies death threats occurring within a context of domestic violence. The accused and the victim had been in a romantic relationship for about six months. On at least one occasion, he aggressively interrogated the victim about her commitment to their relationship and yelled at her in a public space, warranting the intervention of bystanders. One day, after the victim failed to answer similar questions to his liking, the accused repeatedly insulted her, and threatened to beat her, to kill her and to crash the car they were travelling in. Police intervened, and the accused was ultimately charged and found guilty of uttering death threats. The court also found the accused guilty of unlawful confinement as he ignored his partner’s pleas to stop the car and let her out of the vehicle after he started threatening her and driving recklessly.
A death threat can be communicated via a wide range of media, among these letters, newspaper publications, telephone calls, internet blogs and e-mail. If the threat is made against a political figure, it can also be considered treason. If a threat targets a location that is frequented by people (e.g. a building), it could be a terrorist threat. Sometimes, death threats are part of a wider campaign of abuse targeting a person or a group of people (see terrorism, mass murder).
Against a head of state
In many governments, including monarchies and republics of all levels of political freedom, threatening to kill the head of state or head of government (such as the sovereign, president, or prime minister) is considered a crime. Punishments for such threats vary. United States law provides for up to five years in prison for threatening any government official, especially the president. In the United Kingdom, under the Treason Felony Act 1848, it is illegal to attempt to kill or deprive the monarch of their throne; this offense was originally punished with penal transportation, and then was changed to the death penalty, and currently the penalty is life imprisonment.
Named after a high-profile case, Osman v United Kingdom, Osman warnings (also letters or notices) are warnings of a death threat or high risk of murder issued by British police or legal authorities to the possible victim. They are used when there is intelligence of the threat, but there is not enough evidence to justify the police arresting the potential murderer.
- Bomb threat
- Contract killing
- Garda Information Message in Ireland
- Terroristic threat
- Witness intimidation
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- Gill, Carmen; Aspinall, Mary (April 20, 2020). "Comprendre le contrôle coercitif dans le contexte de la violence entre partenaires intimes au Canada: Comment traiter la question par l'entremise du système de justice pénale?" (PDF). Retrieved September 14, 2023.
- Lessard, Michaël; Bonenfant, Romane (December 1, 2020). "Violence conjugale : La victime peut craindre pour sa sécurité physique, psychologique ou émotionnelle en matière de harcèlement criminel". Blogue du CRL.
- Côté, Isabelle; Lapierre, Simon. "Pour une intégration du contrôle coercitif dans les pratiques d'intervention en matière de violence conjugale au Québec" (PDF). Intervention (153): 117.
- Stark, Evan (2012). "Re-presenting Battered Women: Coercive Control and the Defense of Liberty" (PDF). Les Presses de l’Université du Québec.
- Côté, Isabelle; Lapierre, Simon (2021). "Pour une intégration du contrôle coercitif dans les pratiques d'intervention en matière de violence conjugale au Québec" (PDF). Intervention (153).
- Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (2019). "#CallItFemicide: Understanding Gender-Related Killings of Women and Girls in Canada 2019" (PDF). Retrieved September 14, 2023.
- Côté, Isabelle; Lapierre, Simon (2021). "Pour une intégration du contrôle coercitif dans les pratiques d'intervention en matière de violence conjugale au Québec" (PDF). Intervention (153): 121.
- "R. v. R.J., 2023 BCPC 29 (CanLII)". CanLII. February 13, 2023.
- Blog death threats spark debate BBC News retrieved September 30, 2007
- "18 U.S. Code § 871 - Threats against President and successors to the Presidency | US Law | LII / Legal Information Institute". www.law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- "Beds is one of nation's 'death-threat capitals' - News". Bedford Today. 2008-06-13. Retrieved 2012-04-29.