Defining Evil: An Interview With Dr. Michael Welner

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 www.depravityscale.org 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.

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