Defining Evil: An Interview With Dr. Michael Welner

In an interview with the ABC News' Law & Justice Unit, renowned forensic psychiatrist and ABC News consultant Michael Welner talks about pioneering research he is doing to help juries distinguish the worst of crimes on what is being called the Depravity Scale. Welner says he hopes to give Americans a direct voice in defining evil.

What is so important about defining evil in crime?

Evil is such a subjective idea — if you ask 10 people what evil is, you are likely to get 10 answers. But courts already distinguish the worst of crimes, and use words like "heinous," "atrocious" and "vile" to decide that someone warrants greater punishment — even the death penalty. If we as a society have to separate unusual crimes for greater or lesser punishment, we have to have a fair, consistent way of doing so. Otherwise, we learn of cases where the most evil thing about someone was the color of their skin, or the bad attorney they had or the hype of rumors surrounding the case. This is why establishing a depravity standard is so important.

You are a scientist and a forensic psychiatrist. Why do you feel so strongly that the general public needs to be involved in defining depraved crimes?

Citizens are affected by criminal sentencing codes, whether they are going to sit on a jury, or be convicted of an offense, have a loved one facing punishment, or as a crime victim. The criminal justice system can touch any and all of us — in any fashion. A representative democracy, in my opinion, has to incorporate the perspectives of as many as possible or its laws do not reflect its people. If people have a direct hand in fashioning the most controversial standards and laws in our country, people will have greater confidence that the laws are fair.

So you are saying that the depravity standard you are developing is not something you are defining, but the general public is?

That's right. The research I have done enabled me and my colleagues to design an online protocol at www.depravityscale.org for gathering public input on crime in a way that would inform us about which features of a crime make it evil. But my opinion, and the weight of my opinion, should matter no more than anyone else who participates in the surveys. I have my own experiences and frame of reference that affects my opinion as much as anyone else. Perhaps I have seen more, and studied more than most, but since evil is so subjective, I think it is most appropriate that standards of evil crystallize from a broad consensus.

When you speak of developing consensus about evil crimes, you speak of the general public, and not a broad group of psychiatrists or theologians or academics. Why?

Because evil is not only about psychiatry, or even any other forensic science. Nor is evil only about theology, or any other discipline. I may be studying evil as a psychiatrist, and sociologists and cultural anthropologists may concern themselves with evil, but evil is not like physics or mathematics or even psychopharmacology, a discipline one gets training in. Evil is a part of our world and a part of the experience of the community at large. I value a consensus distinction of what is the worst far more than I would the theories of an individual like myself or any selected group of "thinkers" — because who better to speak for general society than people themselves? What makes the worst of crimes is too visceral an idea to be tackled merely by intellect alone.

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