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 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.

Then why are you, as a forensic psychiatrist, attempting to forge a definition of depraved crimes?

Forensic psychiatry is advantaged in guiding this pursuit because it has more exposure to the entire evidence of a case than any other profession. Police investigate the case, but may never interview the defendant. Pathologists and emergency room physicians and nurses, trauma specialists examine people and bodies and read injuries but learn little about the person who inflicted them and how events transpired. Forensic psychiatrists incorporate the input of all of these professionals in the course of reviewing the "before," the "during," and the "after" of a crime. No discipline learns more about the intent of a crime and victims targeted, and the attitude of the perpetrator about his act.

Yet evidence for depravity derives from many different specialties: anthropology, pathology, dentistry, even the computer sciences. So we have an involved advisory board that has helped us very much to refine distinctions that you might never consider, such as "how much attacking reflects an exceptional amount of attacking?"

So forensic scientists, in this Depravity Scale research, are very much involved in the fine points?

Absolutely. Scientists' role in the research on evil is to provide a framework. The public, by participating in the surveys, dictates what examples of intent, actions, victimology, and attitudes should warrant greatest importance in a crime.

Do you feel that examining the crime itself is so overlooked?

In my professional experience, people would be surprised to know how commonly the motive, the attitude of a person about a crime, or the perpetrator's actions are overlooked by psychiatrists who focus rather on theories or diagnoses that "might" explain why a crime happened. To me, that is a disservice, akin to ignoring the elephant in the living room.

Why do you think that is?

Looking at the ugliness of crime is painful and distasteful for everyone, including me. But to refuse to engage evil in behavior and in crime, in my professional opinion, is like a physician who refuses to treat leprosy because it disgusts him or gangrene because it smells bad. Imagine if our military surgeons shied away from half-destroyed soldiers because their wounds were so gory. Physicians trained as specialists in psychiatry as such cannot pick and choose what behavior is psychiatric. Behavior science means an openness to probe all behavior.

You have placed a special focus on criminal intent, and attitudes about a crime. How is that unusual?

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?

Is the person who has sex with a sedated and unconscious victim, like Andrew Luster, more culpable for having exploited a completely helpless victim? Is the home care worker who steals from the blind person in her care demonstrating depravity in exploiting her position of trust? In my professional opinion, people were outraged over Enron and other such pension fund fraud cases because they experienced these as more serious than mere white collar crime. But it should be up to the public to decide whether the crimes of Ken Lay are unusual relative to the crimes of, say, Conrad Black.

What is the purpose of the online research surveys, as you have designed them?

The surveys we are conducting at are trying to determine where we can generally agree, which features of a crime are truly heinous. And, when those features are present how much relative weight should they have on sentencing. Even if we agree that, for example, "intent to terrorize" is an element of depravity that a jury should consider, should it carry greater weight in classifying a crime than "targeting a helpless victim?"

The Depravity Standard needs to be that refined, because believe it or not, many crimes include elements of depravity. Jurors and judges will ultimately use the Depravity Standard as a guide to a threshold of when a crime features carry a statistical weight of highly depraved, moderately depraved, or minimally depraved. So the online research surveys need to include as many from the general public as possible in order to accurately establish a societal measure for which features warrant heavier or lighter weight in a determination of depravity.