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The Depravity Standard II: Developing a measure of the worst of crimes

Michael Welner a, Kate Y. O'Malley a, James Gonidakis a, Alisha Saxena b, James Burnes a
a The Forensic Panel, 224 West 30th Street, New York City, NY 10001, United States
b Teachers College, Department of Clinical Psychology, 428 Horace Mann, New York, NY 10027, United States


Purpose: Aggravating factors in United States criminal codes, such as “heinous,” “atrocious,” “cruel,” “vile,” or “depraved,” distinguish elements of a crime that warrant more severe sentencing. These terms remain vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied. The Depravity Standard research was designed to develop a measure of societal standards for what elements make a crime depraved. Methods and results: Thematic analysis of over 100 appellate court decisions deliberating depravity in crime was performed. Additional input drew from 91 professionals and students in forensic disciplines. 26 items reflecting depravity emerged for further study. Next, a survey of U.S. participants (n =25,096) was conducted to gauge public consensus for depravity in these items. All items received majority support for being somewhat or especially depraved (69.5%–99.1% agreement). A final set of items was then applied to 770 murder cases to refine the definitions and qualifying and disqualifying examples for each item. Conclusions: Case data from 770 murder cases informed the development of a Depravity Standard of 25 items with detailed examples of the intent, actions, victim choice, and attitudes, distinct to what society endorses as the worst of crimes. The items draw content validity from validation studies using actual cases provided by U.S. jurisdictions. 

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