Anti Capital Punishment

Psychiatrists devise 'depravity rating' to help courts decide on death sentences
By Charles Laurence in New York
(Filed: 20/02/2005)

A "depravity rating" that measures evil and will help courts decide whether convicted murderers should face execution or just imprisonment has been drawn up by American psychiatrists. For decades, doctors shunned the use of the word "evil" on the grounds that it crossed the line between clinical and moral judgment.


The chart of evil

Click to enlarge

Now, however, two studies of the criminal personality have concluded that "evil" should be used to describe the most vicious criminals and that it can be measured.

In the first study, Dr Michael Stone, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, examined the biographies of more than 500 killers in New York's Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Centre and developed a 22-level "gradations of evil" list. "After years of study, we have learned to recognise the traits of these people: what they do and why they do it," he said. "It is time to give them the proper appellation evil." On Dr Stone's scale, the most evil killers, such as the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, are classified as "psychopathic torture murderers, with torture their primary motive". At the other end of the scale, the least evil killers are those who have acted in self-defence.

Dr Stone's scale also takes into account whether a killer has been abused, is a jealous lover of the victim, is a drug user, shows remorse or is power-hungry.

In the second study, Dr Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University, sought to draw up a scientific definition of the "aggravating" factors in crimes that would determine whether or not a judge and jury can impose the death penalty. Only one state, Florida, explicitly uses the word "evil" in its legislation. Dr Welner said that others used synonyms such as "heinous", "cruel" and "atrocious". He said: "Jurors are left to decide on the fate of criminals on the basis of mere emotions, and we want to define the term.

"It might sound like parsing words to us, but it would not do so to the victim. We need a serious attempt to engage evil in the modern world: we have lost our compass of what is unacceptable. If there is a clear sense of what is beyond the pale, or evil, it is easier to promote good."

On Dr Stone's scale, Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper", who was convicted in 1981 of murdering 13 women, would be put on level 17 "sexually perverse serial murderers", only five levels below the most depraved killers because he did not torture his victims as he killed them.

Billy the Kid, the 19th-century teenage outlaw who is said to have killed between nine and 21 men, is classified as level 6 ("impetuous, hot-headed, without marked psychopathic features"), while Jean Harris, a school headmistress who in 1980 murdered her lover in a fit of jealousy, is deemed to be only level 2.

Harris found a rival's underwear in the drawer of her lover, Dr Herman Tarnower, the man who launched the Scarsdale Diet, and killed him in rage.

"It was the classic crime of passion, a single lifetime act of a person who, though immature and egocentric, otherwise shows no traits of evil," Dr Stone said.

Dr Welner's scale of depravity was drawn up after taking into account the views of thousands of ordinary people who contributed to a website about their understanding of evil. It covers the intent, the action and the "attitude" of the criminal.

According to Dr Welner, evil intent could describe the desire to carry out a crime for its excitement alone, to terrorise others, to traumatise the victim or to target a victim based on prejudice.

Evil action would take into account whether a killer has prolonged the duration of a victim's suffering, inflicted an "exceptional degree of physical harm" or imposed such suffering on a victim that they demonstrate "panic, terror, and helplessness".

Dr Welner said: "People say evil is like pornography: they know it when they see it, but can debate whether or when it is harmful. This is not true. We are finding widespread agreement about what is evil."

He hopes to complete his research this year and expects the scale to be adopted by courts in the US soon. The scale is already in demand from public prosecutors and State Departments of Justice, and also from defence lawyers, who have read his academic papers.

"It is already being used informally by these lawyers," he said. "But we want to submit it to legislatures for formal adoption into state criminal and civil (tort) law.

"That will slow it down, but I do believe it will become part of our system of law within a few years."

21 January 2005: Sutcliffe's day trip to the Lake District condemned by families

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