Our blog has moved, and is new and improved.

You should be automatically redirected in 3 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Trying to "measure" depravity in criminal cases

When is a violent criminal beyond dangerous? When can his actions be designated as heinous, or even evil?

A forensic psychologist is trying to draw lines of distinction between those grey areas that can be used by trial juries. Michael Welner, M.D., an associate professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine has developed The Depravity Scale, a study using online public participation in an effort to impact future criminal sentencing.

In two surveys, more than 25,000 people have tried to compare the relative significance of different examples of criminal intent, acts, victims targeted, and criminals’ attitudes about their crimes.

The point of the study, Welner says, is to scientifically standardize the definition of legal terms such as “heinous,” “atrocious,” “evil,” and “depraved,” as well as how they’re used in the justice system to determine the severity of sentences.

If you take Welner’s survey, you’ll discover pretty quickly that it’s meant to elicit a visceral reaction. Many of the scenarios depict women and children in peril. When one reads a description of a father torturing and beating his underweight 7-year-old daughter to death for taking yogurt without permission, or one of a man binding the face of a young woman with packing tape, raping and strangling her, then dumping her naked body on the desolate street, how long are they going to deliberate before deciding between calling those acts “somewhat depraved” or “especially depraved”?

Recent incidents such as the horrific Connecticut home invasion and triple murder that led to the arraignment of two parolees will probably add fuel to the discussion. Would it help juries to have black-and-white demarcations between levels of depravity? Can sentencing guidelines be based on a formal schedule of cruel acts, possibly at the expense of mitigating circumstances?

No comments: