Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Depravity Scale Sets Guidelines for Definition of Evil: 'The Depravity Scale Appraises the Evil of an Event, Not the "Who" or the "Why".' (Backdrop of Terrorism)

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Depravity Scale Sets Guidelines for Definition of Evil: 'The Depravity Scale Appraises the Evil of an Event, Not the "Who" or the "Why".' (Backdrop of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

PHILADELPHIA -- Against a backdrop of international terrorism and increasing concerns about arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty, forensic psychiatrists are taking steps to objectify the criteria on how society defines depravity.

In a session entitled "Defining Evil: Clinical and Forensic Implications" at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Michael M. Welner described the Depravity Scale--a tool that he has developed during the past year for assessing the heinous nature of certain actions and crimes.

"The Depravity Scale appraises the evil of an event, not the 'who' or the 'why'," Dr. Welner said. "What we did was to focus on intent, actions, and attitudes about the crime," he said.

Involvement in the Matthew Shepard case, in which a young homosexual man was beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson and later died, led Dr. Welner to look at death penalty statutes around the country. He found that, in many states, for crimes considered particularly depraved, culpability is elevated, influencing capital sentencing and parole eligibility. The goal of the scale, Dr. Welner said, is to provide courts and others with objective criteria in determining the presence or absence of mitigating and aggravating factors associated with crimes.

"We wanted the scale to be event and fact driven, emphasizing historical detail rather than impressionism," said Dr. Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at New York University, New York, and founder of The Forensic Panel. In order to be fair, it also must be blind to color and socioeconomic status and independent of diagnosis and prognosis, he said.

The scale as it now exists evolved out of a review by Dr. Welner of more than 100 higher court cases in which factors termed "heinous," "depraved," "atrocious," or "outrageous" affected disposition of the case and sentencing.

Initially, it consisted of 26 characteristics that consistently appeared in descriptions of these cases. The characteristics were further assessed by a self-selected group of participants representing a diversity of medical, legal, theologic, and social points of view. The scale now contains 15 items, arrived at by consensus, as representative of actions "beyond the pale" and deserving of the label depraved, he said (see box). …

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