Defining Evil: An Interview With Dr. Michael Welner

My research in courts' approaches to determining "heinous" crimes has shown that courts focus on actions to the point of almost entirely excluding consideration of intent. Law enforcement gathers evidence reflecting on guilt or innocence; yet in my professional experience, crime is far more complex than that. Let's consider the following example: A college student brings a knife to school, is in a conflict with another student, and stabs the student. He is charged with attempted murder. Another college student draws up plans and arms himself to mimic Columbine, targeting maximum casualties, hoping to become an icon, or targeting a particular ethnicity. Police stumble on his plot before anything happens. He is charged with possession of weapons. What is the more heinous crime? You cannot appraise the severity of crime, in my professional opinion, without a full understanding of intent.

Can features of intent distinguish, for example, the crimes of O.J. Simpson and John Muhammad?

John Muhammad intended to maximize destruction, intended to traumatize, targeted because of prejudice, exploited the trust of Lee Malvo to enlist him to crime, enlisted Malvo in order to have a juvenile to take criminal responsibility, and enlisted and trained Malvo in order to maximize his destructive potential. His inspiration for increasing levels of depravity included a plot to kill a police officer in order to then bomb police later mourning at the officer's funeral, and to target children disembarking from a school bus. He was indifferent to the suffering of his victims.

If O.J. Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, there is no evidence that he intended anything more than homicide. The pictures were gory, and she and Ronald Goldman were clearly murdered. The unusual features of depravity reflect when a crime is more than murder, for example.

How do you think celebrity crimes demonstrate the importance of refining a depravity standard?

Because when you make a defendant like Scott Peterson larger than life you cease to focus on the evidence of intent, actions, victimology, and attitude of a crime. Then, you venture into the area of whether someone gets a more severe punishment because a jury simply cannot stand them, or whether they receive a more lenient punishment because a jury likes them, such as in the case of basketball star Jayson Williams.

Why value some people over others in a nation that says all are created equal? Andrew Cunanan was a spree killer. He was no more blameworthy that one of his victims was Gianni Versace — unless you feel, as measured by the Depravity Scale research, that carrying out a crime to achieve celebrity is representative of depravity, as do many. But it is not Versace that defines the depravity, it was Cunanan's motive.

Victims should not be assigned greater significance simply because they are beautiful, or because the scenes of their death are messy. All death is messy and tragic. Who is to say that a person who is poisoned and experiences a painful death suffers less than a person who bleeds?

Is there evil beyond murder — in other crimes, for example? How does the Depravity Scale engage those questions?

Certainly there are assaults, sex crimes, and even white collar crimes that the public may feel feature qualities that render them depraved. Is the man who knowingly exposes sex partners to the HIV virus just like anyone else charged with reckless endangerment?

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