Homicide Rate in Iceland Not Increasing, Criminologist Explains

Despite the number of homicide cases exceeding the annual average over the past four years, the murder rate in Iceland – if viewed within a broader context – has decreased per capita. A criminologist has noted that public perception is often influenced by availability bias.

Availability bias plays a role

With the murder of a man in Hafnarfjörður last weekend, a total of four homicide cases are being investigated by three police stations throughout Iceland. Seven people have died in homicide cases over the past two years.

Although it may be tempting to conclude that homicides in Iceland are on the rise, a criminologist explained to RÚV that murders have decreased per capita.

“So far this year, there have been three homicide cases. There were four people who died last year in three homicide cases. The year before that there were two deaths and in 2020 there were three. If we are only looking at this short period, there are an inordinate number of homicides,” Margrét Valdimarsdóttir, associate professor of sociology who holds a PhD in criminology, told RÚV yesterday.

Margrét noted, however, that if the overall picture is considered, the murder rate is declining. A total of 25 homicide cases occurred between 2012 and 2023 – compared to 28 between 1999 and 2011.

“If we were to look at the last thirty years, there have been two murders on average per year. Since 1990, the population of Iceland has increased by 100,000, and a greater number of tourists visit Iceland every year compared to 20 to 30 years ago. Given this, the number of homicides per capita has actually decreased,” Margrét explained.

Gesturing towards the phenomenon of availability bias (i.e. the human tendency to rely on information that comes readily to mind when evaluating situations or making decisions), Margrét noted that public sentiment was often at the mercy of readily available information:

“I think that feeling is understandable. We are seeing a lot of media coverage on every case. And when there are so many cases in quick succession, it is natural that we feel as if there is a general change happening in society – that we somehow live in a more dangerous society,” she stated.

Grímur Grímsson, Chief Superintendent of the Icelandic Police’s central investigative department, struck a similar note during an interview with RÚV earlier this week: “Historically, Iceland has experienced an average of 1.7 to 1.8 homicide cases per year. Sometimes these incidents cluster together, followed by periods of relative calm. Hence, we do not attribute any particular meaning to this pattern at present.”

Seven Year Prison Sentence for Killing Brother

Valur Lýðsson was sentenced to seven years in prison for killing his brother, Ragnar Lýðsson, on the 31st of March, Vísir reports. Valur was found guilty of aggravated assault which led to Ragnar’s death, which included kicking or stamping his head and body.

Detectives gave testimony that blood splatter and injuries suggested that Ragnar had been hit repeatedly while he lay on the floor. Furthermore, Ragnar’s blood was found on Valur’s socks. Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir, who fought the case on behalf of the district attorney, requested that Ragnar receive a sixteen-year prison sentence during the main trial at the end of last August.

Valur’s story

The assault took place at Valur’s house, Gýgjarhóll II in Biskupstungur, on Good Friday. Ragnar and the third brother, Örn, had joined Valur at his home for the night. Valur described that Ragnar had arrived with two bottles of strong liquor. Valur claims he had not taken a sip of alcohol for three months due to his consumption leading to amnesia. He also added that he gets violent when under the influence. The threesome shared the bottles before and after a meal, before Örn headed to bed.

The conversation between Ragnar and Valur turned to future plans for the homestead, which had been owned by the family. Valur didn’t take too kindly to Ragnar’s suggestions, and Ragnar, in turn, didn’t like Valur’s reaction. Valur claims he has no recollection of the fight with his brother. According to Valur, his last memory from the night was his brother’s face. The next morning he woke up and noticed his brother’s body. He immediately called the police to notify them of the situation and stated that he believed he was the killer. He was arrested at the scene. Valur claims there was no ill between the brothers and he had no explanation for how his death happened.

The sentence

A psychiatrist adjudged Valur to be of sound mind and commented that Valur showed clear remorse during the interviews. He did, however, claim amnesia.

It was considered proven that Valur had repeatedly struck his brother with a fist to both head and body. The sentence mentioned that a medical examiner believes that Ragnar’s drunkenness played a part in his death. However, his ribs stung his liver, which would in all likelihood have led to this death on its own, given that he would not have been operated on soon after.

The sentence adjudged that Valur was aware of the fact that repeatedly striking him was dangerous. However, it’s not believed that Valur realized that his strikes, or kicks, would lead to Ragnar’s ribs stinging his liver, with life-threatening consequences. All doubt should be judged in favour of the defendant. Therefore, it was adjudged that it was not proven that the accused intended to kill his brother. For that reason, Valur was not sentenced for manslaughter but rather a dangerous and deliberate assault which led to his death.

The fallout

Ragnar’s four children will receive ISK 3 million ($ 27,000 / € 22,900) each as compensation for their father’s death. The sentence was passed yesterday in the District Court of South Iceland, the lowest of the three Icelandic court branches, the other two being the Supreme Court of Iceland and the Court of Appeal. At this point, neither the district attorney or Valur’s defendant have decided to appeal the case. Valur will remain in custody until the deadline for appeal passes.