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Death Penalty

Depravity Scale Categorizes Murders

Posted Jul 23, 2007 3:21 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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What is evil? The question bedevils philosophers, but that hasn’t stopped a forensic psychiatrist from trying to figure out an answer for the legal system.

Michael Welner is a psychiatry professor at New York University who has created a depravity scale that separates run-of-the-mill murders from those that are vile, depraved, heinous, cruel and evil, the Washington Post reports. Those are the kinds of considerations used to determine which murders deserve the death penalty.

Welner developed his scale based on his analysis of 100 appeals court decisions that determined crimes to be especially heinous. His results are also informed by an online survey, taken by 25,000 people, about their attitudes regarding the worst crimes. His scale rates murderous behaviors as very depraved, somewhat depraved, or not very depraved.

The survey found that 99 percent of the respondents agree actions that promote suffering, that are intended to traumatize, or that cause grotesque suffering are depraved.

"What this research does is force the people who are arguing the case to explain to a jury, in an evidence-driven way, 'What is it about this crime that makes it evil?' If it's obvious, then the evidence will bear it out," he told the Post.

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