Dr. Michael Welner is board certified in Forensic Psychiatry and Clinical Psychopharmacology. He is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law. He founded and serves as chairman of The Forensic Panel and developed the Depravity Scale, a method for codifying and standardizing evil acts. I am pleased to have him as my guest on The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: Of all the medical specialities available, what attracted you to Forensic Psychiatry?
MW: I came to forensic psychiatry by accident. I was never drawn to blood n’ guts, and have never had a great fascination for bogeymen. All I wanted to do was take care of patients. And so I was near the end of my residency training, anticipating going out into treatment practice. I happened to go to a lecture in which we watched a videotaped interview of a teenage defendant accused of killing his whole family, who had raised the insanity defense. We, as a group of fourth year psychiatry residents, were asked to consider the criteria of the insanity defense and to then offer our opinion as to whether the defendant met the criteria for same.
Doug, I got so fired up in that discussion, working on all cylinders, that I left the lecture with an epiphany of, “If you can get this energized by something, you need to do it every day.” The next day I was on the phone with fellowship programs. I was fortunate then to be invited at an early stage to the fellowship program of Dr. Bob Sadoff, who became my mentor at the beginning of my career. It only got better from there.
Forensic psychiatry forces you to confront a case related question on several planes, simultaneously: the psychiatric, the medical, the legal, the investigative, and the tactical, and often the cultural. I cannot imagine another line of work in which the challenges you face have such complex depth and textures, ever shifting, and over a period of time. Incredibly stimulating, and the more experience one has, the more you see things that add to the microscopic depth of your capabilities. I’m terribly grateful.
Apart from that, you are working in the adversarial system. In clinical medicine, your work has less accountability. In the courts, your work is under high scrutiny, so you have to have a competitive temperament to excel and to get it right. That requires a lot more soul searching than one may realize. It’s a very athletic endeavor as much as an intellectual one, because you find yourself competing against previous high marks for your skills. That suits my temperament.
DPL: You founded and are chairman of The Forensic Panel. What does that group do?
MW: The Forensic Panel is a forensic science practice that works on cases in psychiatry, pathology, toxicology, neuroradiology, and medicine. The Panel was founded to introduce oversight and peer review to forensic consultation as a matter of course. We were the first practice in America to approach this ethics and quality need. I knew that attaching that component to my own work was the next stage of making the work an even higher grade of fact finding and analysis.
Most people who are not attorneys have no idea how deficient most forensic work is. Sometimes it’s embarrassingly biased. Peer review in forensics pushes diligence further, safeguards objectivity, and keeps the science, well, science. So I introduced this into forensic science consultation ten years ago and believe that in time, it will catch on as the norm, rather than in only the best of practices. Peer review in anything makes your work better – it’s like a great editor, no? No matter who you are, you can always benefit from oversight and constructive critique.
DPL: Tell us about your Depravity Scale? How did it come about and what is it used for?
MW: After you see enough crimes as a forensic psychiatrist, you come to appreciate some murders are more depraved or less depraved compared to others, just as some fraud or other crimes would be. My proximity to legal case decisions introduced me to the haziness of sentencing codes that use words like “heinous,” “atrocious,” “depraved,” to distinguish what crimes deserve special punishment. As loaded as these terms are, no one had seriously studies how we can operationalize “evil” as a term arrived at based on evidence, in a consistent, applicable way.
The Depravity Scale, at www.depravityscale.org, set up a means for the general public to participate in surveys that help shape courts’ opinions about what elements of a crime would make it especially depraved. In my opinion, if justice is going to judge depravity, the public has to define depravity as a reflection of societal attitudes. We have gathered a large sample of data from participants from many countries, have demonstrated that evil in crime can be defined and standardized. Another phase of the research, is refining the statistical data gathered to apply to individual court cases. I urge your readers to participate at www.depravityscale.org and to have a direct hand in shaping justice, and to have their friends do so as well.
DPL: What types of cases are you typically consulted on?
MW: The hard cases, but the right ones, where there are many issues to sort out and details that need to be found but remain hidden. Complex questions relating to criminal responsibility, sentencing and criminal competency, questions of death investigation, and disputes relating to wills and investment competency. A mix of criminal and civil cases, but ones where the issues are challenging. But I will not take on a case if I sense that the side that contacts me is in the wrong, or if I have a sense that there is something being hidden from me that will leave me feeling that morally I am on the wrong side.
DPL: Of all the cases you’ve consulted on, who were the baddest of the bad and what about them put them at the top of your list?
MW: I have come to the conclusion, from a case that I am now involved in, that brainwashing is the worst thing you can do to someone psychologically. The person who is brainwashed is dismantled to the smallest cell, and rebuilt according to the plan of a selfish and controlling operator. When the brainwashed person is fortunate enough to be removed from the manipulator, they have to reassemble with no owner’s manual. It is frightening and tragic to see a person walking around, many years later, with the pieces in the wrong places or the pieces missing, questioning who they are at their very elements. This is one reason why I believe that those who employ mind control to extend their apocalyptic fantasy, be they Congolese creating child soldiers to the Jim Jones’ who drink Kool Aid and kill those who don’t, to Islamists in Iraq and Palestinians who cultivate suicide bombing as a noble cause are the depth of disgusting.
NOTE: For those of you coming to ThrillerFest/CraftFest in NY this July, don’t miss my interview of Dr. Welner during CraftFest.