Q&A with Dr. Michael Welner, Forensic Psychiatrist
CriminalJusticePrograms.com interviewed Michael Welner, M.D., founder and chairman of The Forensic Panel. He is a leading forensic psychiatrist who has consulted and provided testimony on a number of high-profile cases, including the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. Dr. Welner is an innovator in his field, establishing peer review protocols and leading research in standardizing and defining “evil.”
He is board-certified in four disciplines and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.
Below Dr. Welner talks about his work with the Forensic Panel and the Depravity Scale.
Q: What is The Forensic Panel?
The Forensic Panel is the first forensic science practice in the United States to operationalize peer-reviewed oversight as integral to the forensic assessment. I developed The Forensic Panel in reflecting on how we forensic consultants operate. We are on an island, not learning from others’ experience, not challenged to refine our work by critical thinking, and not aware of potential blind spots. I had always enjoyed working with colleagues in hospital-based practice, and so I brought the hospital model to forensic assessment.
We began as a forensic psychiatry practice in 1998, growing from my own practice and have added specialties based on needs that arose in different cases. For example, we recognized that in order to properly conduct death investigation, we needed pathology and toxicology. Now we conduct some death investigations in pathology completely independent of the behavioral sciences. The quality of our specialists have helped the practice grow up in interesting directions that I never even envisioned.
Q: How does the Forensic Panel’s approach differ from other practices?
Peer review promotes honesty and integrity in the forensic assessment. That is a key strength of the work that comes out of this practice. We use peer review to push examiners to ask, review, and search more. Forensic investigation is never the same from one case to the next, so those in forensic psychiatry and forensic science need to think openly and creatively about the right questions to ask. An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of expertise.
Q: How does the work the Forensic Panel has done contribute to the forensic science field?
The case work attached to our practice has a signature of “The Last Word.” It creates an example of thoroughness, openness and transparency (our interviews are usually videotaped). Setting a good example is something each of us can do in our work. My mother was a nurse and she operated that way – she competed against herself to elevate the level of her work. We try to do better with each effort, as well.
Q: What are some of the common misconceptions about forensics?
When you have an opportunity to integrate your findings into the bigger picture of an unsolved case and/or litigation, it is exciting. But, evidence doesn’t come to you. In fact, evidence is often not even there for the taking. You have to be proactive and detect evidence from human intelligence and witnesses. In that sense, you have to have an inquisitive temperament and keep asking questions even after everyone else has headed out for drinks. You have to get used to people thinking you are fanatical and pressuring you to quit, and stay the course.
Q: There has been some criticism about the reliability of forensic science practices – what kind of practices will help change the field for the better?
I think courts have to hold expert testimony and practices accountable. Until that happens, we will continue to see expert witness chicanery even in cases of high scrutiny. In the criminal case of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnappers, for example, evidence from a key defense witness, which was withheld, slowed the case down by about five years and could have derailed it altogether. Unbelievable, but there was no accountability.
Q: Can you talk a little about the Depravity Scale – what is it and how might it affect the criminal justice system?
The Depravity Standard is a multi-tiered research initiative to standardize the distinction of the worst of crimes. Using evidence of intent, actions, victimology and attitudes derived from the range of forensic sciences, from anthropology to psychiatry – we can distinguish the worst of murders, assaults and violent crimes. Sentencing, in my opinion, should properly account for these distinctions between crimes. It does not. Judges and jurors only see a portion of what happened as they determine guilt. Part of the Depravity Scale, www.depravityscale.org, is a series of surveys that appraises the perspective of the general public about features of the worst of crimes. It is the first criminal justice research that actively incorporates the input of the general public.
The research aims to integrate public survey input with appellate case decisions and the study of large samples of actual cases to create a standard that informs juries about the evidence that makes some crimes worse than others.
Q: Why is standardization so important in the criminal justice field today?
If we want justice that is blind, we need standards to be evidence-based whenever possible. Standardization promotes fairness and a quality of evidence that brings out best practices.
Q: What can criminal justice professionals, whether in law, law enforcement, or forensics, take away from the Depravity Scale?
Right now we approach criminal responsibility as a matter of guilt or lack of evidence of guilt. Evidence gathering shoots for that threshold. A Depravity Standard goes beyond this, aiming to inform courts of evidence of intent, actions, attitude and victimology. These measures assist the courts as they consider which crimes should be adjudicated with greater understanding and compassion and which crimes warrant greater accountability. The Depravity Scale was incorporated into this research in order to give the general public an avenue for directly impacting justice in the long term. In my opinion, a public that is more involved in shaping the justice system is more invested in it.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for students entering the criminal justice field?
Learn your core requirements well because you must master the fundamentals. Then, find a frontier and develop it. The field along with discoveries in science and technology afford opportunities to new scientists and professionals to make a unique contribution to justice.
Q: What do you see for the future of criminal justice?
I am not sure. I think digital data mining is the next frontier of evidence. But the future of criminal justice will be most immediately affected by cost containment. What justice priorities are set by the federal government? Where does it allocate? Terrorism has demonstrated that those priorities are sometimes set for us by forces we cannot control. One might see drug enforcement initiatives being de-emphasized, but the disintegration of justice in Mexico may become a key consideration in contemporary American justice. Our ongoing financial crisis will also affect justice priorities as much as political ideology does.
Q: How can students become involved with the Depravity Scale and some of your other initiatives?
A number of schools have set up extra credit programs for students who participate in the Depravity Scale research. We welcome classes and teachers to make sure their voices are counted at www.depravityscale.org.
We very much appreciate student volunteers, and have a well-developed internship program for even remote-located students. Visit www.forensicpanel.com for more details.
Photo: The Forensic Panel