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Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup You!

Depravity, like pornography, is what the viewer says it is. Or what the judge and jury say it is. Or, in our world of science and pseudo-science, what a few thousand folks on the Internet say it is. Thanks to an innovative group of psychiatrists and other forensics experts at a New York consulting firm called The Forensic Panel, there will soon be some sort of Depravity Index that gives lawyers and psychiatrists a better sense of what crimes and intentions American lawyers think qualify as depraved.

Although apparently any and all are welcome to test their own beliefs about what constitutes a depraved act of violence, it seems the study is aimed particularly at folks in the legal world (which may well skew the results; lawyers tend to see the world in very different ways from the rest of us.)

So I invested 10 minutes and found out that my own attitudes toward crime are very much rooted in the specific acts committed by criminals and not so much in the bad guys' intentions or attitudes. That is, I was very likely to characterize as depraved a crime in which the thug prolonged the duration of his victim's suffering or responded to a trivial irritant with extreme violence. But I was far less likely to call depraved the attitudes of a criminal who, for example, was indifferent to his own violent actions or who falsely accused others of his own acts, even if that accusation deliberately exposed an innocent person to punishment.

I surprised myself by being less outraged by and perhaps slightly more understanding of criminals for what they believed or intended than for the acts they committed. Without having considered the hypotheticals in the survey, I would have predicted that I'd be more consistent about labelling as depraved both the extreme behaviors and the premeditation that launched those crimes. But as I moved through the survey, I found myself rooting around for reasons not to consider attitudes depraved--we all have evil thoughts; people can have terrible intentions but if they don't act on them, they're not necessarily depraved.

All of this matters primarily in capital cases, where juries are asked to determine whether a criminal's actions were depraved--the legal threshold for the death penalty in many cases.

But then, of course, to a layman, the line between depraved and insane may not always be quite clear. This is the part of criminal law that we as a society that endorses the death penalty don't really like to think about too much. If you ask a child whether a mass murderer is by definition insane, you almost always get a quick and definitive Yes. It's only the more complex adult mind that attempts to draw distinctions between crazy behavior that's sane and crazy behavior that's not. All too often, what matters more than any real behavioral or neurological distinction is the quality and creativity of the lawyers and consultants involved in the case--yet another reason why our execution of the death penalty is all too corrupt.

Give the survey a try--you may be surprised by your own attitudes. Somehow the whole exercise had me humming that tune from West Side Story--"Gee, Officer Krupke:"

I'm disturbed (Jets) We're disturbed, we're disturbed, we're the most disturbed Like we're psychologically disturbed (Snowboy imitating Judge) Hear ye, hear ye, in the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home. (Riff) Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.

By Marc Fisher |  February 23, 2006; 7:48 AM ET
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Comments

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I didn't see any human research protocol or informed consent at the beginning of this survey. Is it ethical for them to doing this?

Posted by: David | February 23, 2006 11:03 AM

I just took the survey. Looks safe, from an ethical standpoint.

They tell us what will be involved, why they're asking the questions, and what it will be used for. By being an internet survey, we can obviously stop at any point.

This isn’t human subject medical research, anyway. It’s a survey that’s used as a part of a larger project to ultimately inform lawmakers.

I knew what I was getting into, and felt comfortable with their assurance of confidentiality.

Kudos to Marc Fishman for posting about this site. The public SHOULD be involved in impacting criminal sentencing -- and, for my part, I enjoyed participating.

Posted by: Charlie N. | February 23, 2006 1:14 PM

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