New York, Feb. 20: 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.
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, 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 Stone's scale, the most evil killers 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.
Stone's scale also takes into account if a killer has been abused, is a jealous lover of the victim, a drug user, shows remorse or is power-hungry.
In the second study, Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University, sought to draw up a scientific definition of '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. Others used synonyms such as 'heinous', 'cruel' and 'atrocious'.
Welner 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 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.
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, action and the 'attitude' of the criminal.
According to 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'.