Giving Evil the Eye
Juries Don't Always Know Heinous Crimes
When They See Them, But This Might Help

Article by Neely Tucker
Washington Post
July 23, 2007

Return to Current Events

From the annals of grisly American crimes that fascinate forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, we bring you one Ivan Teleguz. We'll ask you to decide if the 28-year-old Teleguz committed an act that was "vile," "depraved" and/or "evil."

This is no mere semantic exercise. The life of Teleguz--like many facing the death penalty -- hinges on whether his actions can be fairly described as evil and vile and depraved and cruel and heinous. These are the legal terms that separate the casually murderous from the truly sadistic. The way these things work, the latter get the death penalty (or at least enhanced sentences); the former do not.

The Teleguz case, stemming from a throat-slitting homicide in Harrisonburg, was ultimately decided by the Virginia Supreme Court on April 20. Feeling squeamish? A little depressed? "We don't want to look at evil. We don't want to sit with it. We don't want to wade in it."

This is Welner talking. He's wearing coat and tie in his narrow, rectangular office. There are little ceramic gargoyles on the walls and a slice of the Manhattan skyline outside his eighth-floor window. "But it's as if an oncologist looked away from the cause of cancer because they don't know how to treat it, or a virologist looks away from AIDS because he considers it to be inscrutable. If you can identify evil, then you can go about eliminating it. It's the first step in any scientific research."

First, the Teleguz facts:

In the summer of 2001, according to trial testimony in Rockingham County, Va., Ivan Teleguz got tired of paying child support to his former girlfriend, 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe. Their 2-year-old son lived with her. Teleguz's solution to this problem was to kill Sipe. He hired two men to kill her, but not quickly with a gun. He told them he wanted Sipe's "throat cut." He drove the pair from his home in Pennsylvania to a Wal-Mart near Sipe's apartment in Harrisonburg. They bought a fillet knife for the job. Teleguz drove them to her apartment, then went back to Pennsylvania to establish an alibi. The men went to the door, asked to use the phone, then attacked.

The fatal wound: "a cut approximately two and one-half inches deep into Sipe's trachea, larynx, and a major artery on the right side of Sipe's neck." It caused the young mother to "drown in her own blood," according to the trial record.

Only then did the killers hear the bath water running. They discovered the 2-year-old in the tub. They were considerate enough to turn the water off. They left the child with his nearly decapitated mother. Mother and child were not discovered for two days.

Teleguz paid the men $2,000 and kicked in another $500 for expenses. Two years passed. The killers were eventually identified by blood left at the scene. They gave up Teleguz to police. (The man wielding the knife got life in prison. The accomplice got 15 years.)

Prosecutors, however, wanted the death penalty for Teleguz. To do that, they needed to demonstrate his "depravity of mind" and that the crime was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman," according to the Virginia statute.

Here's the legal definition for "depravity of mind": "A degree of moral turpitude and psychical detachment surpassing that inherent in the definition of ordinary legal malice and premeditation." Webster's definition of vile: "morally base or evil; wicked; depraved; sinful."

In other words, was Teleguz your typical murder-for-hire customer, or was he really sadistic and depraved?

The jury found him to be depraved and sentenced him to death -- delivering a punishment harsher than the man who actually stabbed Sipe. The state Supreme Court took it up for review.

Do you think Teleguz was depraved to the point of evil? You do know what evil is, right? That's funny, because nobody else has figured out exactly how to define it. Of course, that hasn't stopped Welner from trying.

The search for absolute evil is as old as mankind. No one has ever pinned down what it is, either as a theological concept or as a physical act. Welner would like to pin it down as a legal concept.

The Bible posits it existed in the world with Adam and Eve but not much more is apparent. The New Catholic Encyclopedia: "There is no precise articulation of the nature of evil in the creeds of the church, nor is there any explicit or definitive doctrine of evil."

Descartes wrestled with the idea of the "Evil Genius" before deciding the only thing one could be sure of was consciousness ("I think, therefore I am"). Kant had the idea of "radical evil" corrupting the categorical imperative. Buddhism is non-dualistic, but still has Mara, the god of evil and destruction. Atheists generally say that evil is not due to God giving man free will (a popular explanation of the religious crowd) but because there is no God at all.

The theology department at Georgetown University has a required course titled "The Problem of God." It asks the eternal question: "What is evil?" Department Chairman Terrence Reynolds says the question is more interesting than the answer, primarily because there isn't one.

"It's probably true that in the modern age we don't like behavior to go completely unexplained," Reynolds says in a telephone interview. "We like to reduce profoundly aberrant behavior to some chemical or neurological agent, but evil can transcend attempts to define it. . . . I'm not afraid of mystery in life, and evil to me is part of that mystery."

Welner is going to keep trying to solve that mystery, at least for the legal system. Upbeat, enthusiastic, 42, handsome, cleanshaven, recently married, child of Pittsburgh, son of a nurse and an engineer. He's an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University medical school and chairman of the Forensic Panel, a 30-member organization of medical and forensic scientists that consults on court cases.

His fascination with human evil started a decade ago, when he was editing a journal called the Forensic Echo, which tracked public policy, psychiatric research and court decisions. He noticed there was a steady stream of traffic from trial to appellate courts about what constituted the worst of crimes.

This matters because prosecutors and defense attorneys spar over technical matters such as jury instructions, and aggravating and mitigating circumstances -- all of which determine the punishment for the crime in question.

Intrigued by how different states wrestled with the concept of evil, he went through more than 100 appellate decisions that upheld crimes as being, say, "especially heinous." He worked backward to the underlying psychiatric diagnosis of the perpetrator -- malignant narcissism, psychopathy, necrophilia -- to produce a chart of psychiatric conditions involved in the worst types of crimes.

"What this research does is force the people who are arguing the case to explain to a jury, in an evidence-driven way, 'What is it about this crime that makes it evil?' If it's obvious, then the evidence will bear it out," Welner says. "Do we find that a person who flays the skin off someone's face after they have passed away, ergo disrespect for the victim after the fact . . . do we as a society agree that that should distinguish a crime as depraved?"

Welner calls his developing taxonomic standard of evil the Depravity Scale. It's a chart, divided into sections that separate the intents, actions and behaviors of the sadistic and the sick. These get rated: very depraved, somewhat depraved, not so much. Welner has also developed a scientific questionnaire that asked people to rate various types of crimes into more or less depraved to see if there was broad consensus.

(You can take the survey at

It asks the question: "Is there evil beyond crime?" Not, of course, that a survey can define evil -- just what we think is evil.)

Over the years, he consulted on vicious crimes cases that expose how tricky this can be.

Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, he rates as not depraved, because she "did not intend to emotionally traumatize, to terrorize, to show off, to maximize damage, there was no criminal indulgence or grotesque quality to the suffering, no prolonged agony. She did not desecrate the bodies." John Allen Muhammed, the lead D.C. sniper, charts as depraved because he "intended to maximize destruction, intended to traumatize, targeted because of prejudice, exploited the trust of [Lee Boyd] Malvo to enlist him in crime, enlisted Malvo in order to have a juvenile to take responsibility, and enlisted and trained Malvo in order to maximize his destructive potential."

What about, say, the O.J. Simpson case? The murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, whether O.J. did it or not? Was that depraved?


"The available evidence from the crime, and the available information about the person believed to have committed it [O.J.], doesn't distinguish it from other domestic homicides," Welner says. "What distinguishes it are dramatic pictures shown to the public and a tragic case of a beautiful woman losing her life, along with a person trying to do her a favor, and a celebrity defendant."

More than 25,000 people (most from the United States but others from a total of more than 50 countries) have taken the online survey. Welner thinks the Depravity Scale, if adopted by legislatures or by court systems, could lead to a standardized definition of the most serious terms, eliminating the dangers of jurors being unreasonably swayed, one way or another, by a particular crime.

The [Depravity] scale "is a very important clinical tool to evaluate a crime," says Vernon J. Geberth, author of "Practical Homicide Investigation," a standard reference book in the field, and a retired commander in the New York City police department. "Most psychologists testify for the defense and come up with some sort of apology for some of most outrageous conduct. But some of these people can't be handled like that. Some people, some things, are just evil."

It turns out people agree in staggering numbers.

Regardless of race, age, gender, religious belief or political party, 99 percent of all respondents who have taken the survey agree that "actions that cause grotesque suffering," "intent to emotionally traumatize" and "actions that prolong suffering," are depraved and, therefore, worthy of the most severe legal punishment available.

Red state, blue state, rich, poor, black, white, all agreed. Victims of violent crime agree with people who haven't been victimized. Death penalty advocates agree with abolitionists.

But wait a minute -- here's where things get bizarre.

Welner's leading example of our confusion over evil and depravity is the case of Charles Reddish. He is a New Jersey man who in 1995 tied up his girlfriend and her teenage daughter. He then put a sheet over the daughter's head and killed the girlfriend with an ax. Then he took the child upstairs and raped her.

The jury convicted him of the murder and rape. But, after the judge created a very narrow standard of what is heinous in the jury instructions, they found that killing a mother with 24 blows from an ax in front of her child was not depraved. No worse than any ordinary murder.

"You can't infer any intent to inflict torture," said the foreman.

And Ivan Teleguz? Was he "depraved"?

Yes, said the jury -- and the Virginia Supreme Court. There were many elements that the appellate court affirmed as depraved -- planning the murder to avoid supporting his own child; directing the killing to take place without regard to the child's presence; and, most particularly, directing the killers to cut Sipe's throat.

"Teleguz's specific directions for the manner in which Sipe was to be murdered are evidence of his depravity of mind," the court ruled. "The facts in this case support a finding of such depravity of mind and thus satisfy the statutory predicate of vileness."

Ivan Teleguz is on death row.

What is evil? Who can say?

Philip Jenkins
Professor of History and Religious Studies
Pennsylvania State University

Return to Top    Return to Current Events

Home   Biography   The Books   PHI Seminars   Current Involvements   Research Materials   Curriculum Vitae   PHI Distribution   Sites of Interest

"We work for God."®