Indexing evil: Michael Welner, M.D., talks to PT News Editor Kaja Perina about forensic psychiatry in the courtroom – Criminal Justice – Brief Article

Indexing evil: Michael Welner, M.D., talks to PT News Editor Kaja Perina about forensic psychiatry in the courtroom – Criminal Justice – Brief Article – Interview

Kaja Perina

How depraved is the act of defiling a corpse? What about bombing a building at the time of maximum occupancy? Such unsavory questions constitute the Depravity Scale, an attempt to define “heinous, depraved, atrocious and cruel” behavior. Michael Welner, M.D., is the scale’s architect. Welner is also chairman of the Forensic Panel, editor in chief of The Forensic Echo and associate professor of psychiatry at New York University.

Kaja Perina: How do you define depravity?

Michael Welner: It’s an intentional act that by virtue of its motivation, activities and associated attitudes reflects sadism, blood lust and a contempt or self-absorption with regard to its effect on the victim.

KP: Why do we need this scale?

MW: Cases come up in which the defense contests someone having committed a “heinous” or “vile” crime–over the definition of the word. They are saying that the court’s determination is arbitrary. If this keeps coming up at the appellate level, then we’ve got a problem. Also, in criminal and civil cases the standard for words such as “outrageous” may be different from one state to the next, and the jury just says, “How do I feel about this?” It should be the jury’s decision. But it should be driven by relevant evidence, rather than by an emotional argument that may come down to the lawyer’s skills.

KP: But aren’t responses to the Depravity Scale ultimately based on emotion?

MW: The points are presented equally to everyone. People see the same examples, and that’s one of the reasons we need a large sample size.

KP: Have previous attempts been made to standardize these terms?

MW: There have been flirtations with psychiatry’s ability to define evil, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s a sense of, “Can we approach this, because its so theological?”

KP: Is psychiatry viewed as traditionally siding with the defense? If so, will your scale remedy that perception?

MW: Yes. Psychiatry only enters the equation of a criminal case at the request of a defense attorney. A prosecutor can only bring psychiatry in to rebut what a defense attorney raises. So I want to make sure that the scale is nondenominational and not just another tool that’s raised to be rebutted.

KP: How does September 11 factor into the Depravity Scale?

MW: People look at the hijackers and readily attach this spectrum of depravity. But they’re overlooking the very real possibility that these people were brainwashed, much the way destructive cult followers are. So are we dealing with depravity, or with an act of war? Is bin Laden psychopathic and depraved in his actions, or is he simply an Islamic populist?

Go to www.depravityscale.org to answer the questionnaire.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group