Science of Evil: Depravity Scale Ranks Crimes

Forensic experts are investigating the science of evil to determine which crimes should get the worst sentences -- and they need your help.

THE GIST

Scientists are trying to standardize the degree of a crime's depravity.

The findings might help judges and juries get passed some of the emotion to make more evidence-based decisions.

Which is worse: Bombing a building or forcing a child to watch a crime? Attacking a stranger for fun or causing a car accident while under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Murder with intent or murder by mistake?

They're complicated questions that, in the heat of a criminal trial, can get tangled up in emotion, abstract impressions and arguments about how bad a crime really was.

In an attempt to restore order that even judges and juries often can't instill, an ongoing project is working to clarify exactly what it means for a crime to be "heinous," "cruel," "atrocious," "depraved" or "evil" -- words that get thrown around courtrooms but lack clear definitions.

By creating societal standards for different levels of criminal activity, the project aims to create a clear-cut "Depravity Scale" that would guide sentencing decisions. To achieve that goal, researchers are asking for input through online surveys from as many people as possible -- including you.

"Our feeling is that if we establish some kind of fair threshold system, then the worst crimes will separate themselves out -- not because the press makes it sensational or the victim is attractive or the perpetrator is unlikable, but because of something evidence-driven," said Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at the New York University School of Medicine and chairman of The Forensic Panel, a forensic science consulting firm.

"We hope that Discovery readers are not only interested in criminal sentencing, but that they weigh in," he added.

The public survey, located at www.depravityscale.org, asks users questions about race, gender, education level and religious beliefs. Then it plunges into the hard stuff -- asking people to rank 26 features of theoretical wrongdoings on a scale from most to least depraved.

Examples include: Bombing a crowded building in the middle of the work day in order to cause the greatest number of casualties; wanting to watch a victim die; victimizing the disabled; massacring obviously harmless villagers during wartime; and being able to carry out regular activities as if nothing happened after a crime.

In an earlier first phase of the study, based on responses from more than 16,000 people, Welner and colleagues found that, regardless of background, Americans thought the worst of crimes were those that caused grotesque suffering, with near-consensus on 16 of 26 categories.

The study has also found greater differences between countries in how people rank crimes than within countries.

Now in the next two phases, with 14,000-plus responses and counting, the project aims to determine exactly which features of a crime make it seem especially abhorrent to people. Emerging themes include what the perpetrator intended to do, and how he or she felt about the crime afterward.

The ultimate goal is to give prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, juries and law enforcement officers a formula that they can use to figure out just how depraved they should consider a crime to be.

The Depravity Scale project's biggest weakness is that it may not be getting a completely representative sample of the American population, said Eric Hickey, a criminal psychologist at the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University in Fresno. Whether it's weighted by socioeconomic status, views of the death penalty or past experience with violent crime, conclusions could be skewed.

Still, Hickey said, the research could eventually become a useful tool for bringing order to the often chaotic world of crime.

"It helps us look at crime behavior in terms of how we feel about it, and how horrible and heinous it might be -- rather than saying murder is a terrible thing or murder is murder -- so here's the punishment," he said. "There's a lot of subjectivity to this."

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