Psychiatry, the Law, and Depravity: Profile of Michael Welner, M.D. Chairman, The Forensic Panel
As a well-known and respected practitioner of forensic psychiatry in America, Dr. Michael Welner works on many exciting projects and cases. He is chairman of The Forensic Panel, a national forensic science consultation practice that employs peer-reviewed assessment. He is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, and an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University. On the research side, Dr. Welner has self-funded the Depravity Scale Project, which aims to standardize legal distinctions of the worst crimes to assist fairness in criminal sentencing. He also continues to see patients in a Manhattan-based treatment practice. Dr. Welner holds four board certifications in psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and disaster medicine. Honored by the American Psychiatric Association for excellence in medical education, he strives to innovate and influence the practice of forensic psychiatry. Readers may recognize Dr. Welner from frequent appearances on ABC News' Good Morning America, CNN's Larry King Live, and Court TV/ In Session programs.
The door to Dr. Welner's eighth-floor office in Manhattan opens into a spacious outer area filled with books, files, telephones, computers and a busy staff, while he works in a long, narrow room to one side. A dark, wooden desk dominates the room and the wall opposite the windows is lined with numerous framed diplomas and certificates. Beneath an incongruous set of candlesticks on a shelf sits a small, stone gargoyle reading a book. Behind Dr. Welner's chair, above an antique cabinet, hangs an impressionist-style painting of a serene landscape of children playing in a field — in plain view for patients and examinees seated in the armchair opposite the desk.
Most recently he's worked on a Texas death penalty assessment of a father who killed his three children, treatment standards for an Idaho inmate who died mysteriously, a 30 year-old Canadian false-confession case, a same-sex harassment trial, a psychological autopsy of a high powered government official who abruptly killed himself, a North Carolina military case of a man who killed his commanding officer, a competency-to-wed dispute of a deceased individual, and a battered-woman defense in a California murder trial.
Inspired by genuine need in the courts for thorough, accurate, and honest forensic examination, as well as the pervasive problem of hired-gun testimony, Dr. Welner founded The Forensic Panel in 1998. Based in New York, it claims to be the first peer-reviewed expert consultation practice in the country. Members must expose their efforts and findings to the scrutiny of eminent peers in a formal procedure to minimize examiner bias. Peers also update other examiners with new advances in a particular field, enhance the thoroughness of examinations, and ensure adherence to updated standards of practice.
"The experience of working with my colleagues on The Panel has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my professional life," said Welner. In creating The Forensic Panel, Dr. Welner and his staff sought out colleagues with depth of knowledge and experience in their scientific discipline as well as a track record of independent thinking and courtroom honesty.
"We built The Panel with world-class physicians and scientists as a first priority," explains Dr. Welner, "because courts need professional scientists, not professional experts. Beyond that, we had to face the challenge of recruiting experts who hadn't been presenting nonsense and dishonest testimony in the past and you'd be surprised: some of the most respected forensic people do. But the members of The Forensic Panel deserve to have that comfort level about our colleagues."
The Forensic Panel currently has 35 fully-vetted professionals on staff, in the behavioral sciences, pathology, toxicology, emergency medicine, and neuroradiology. At least two doctors peer-review any given case, examination, or report on which The Forensic Panel consults. This approach brings accountability for expert witnesses into the courtroom — and enhances courts' confidence in the work.
Welner points out that "In the private sector, you have the responsibility, the burden, and the freedom to think for yourself and be your own critic, and that's not without risk. Everyone has potential for blind spots. You can always learn from colleagues and from peer-reviewed oversight. I've certainly been quite grateful for insights I've received on my own work."
Peer-review, and The Forensic Panel is only one of Dr. Welner's progressive contributions to forensic psychiatry. In 1996, Dr. Welner unveiled The Forensic Echo, a monthly periodical that analyzed court decisions associated with forensic science and public policy, as well as recent scientific research. It was the first publication to provide case reviews in digest form, along with extensive analysis of the context of decisions. Other publications followed suit.
The Echo is now archived at The Forensic Panel website as a free resource for those researching the forensic sciences. Dr. Welner believes The Forensic Panel will return to active publishing in the years ahead, "when we make time for it." With a smile, he observes, "You can't do everything, but forensics is inherently a progressive specialty that touches on public policy. The Echo was writing about topics way ahead of the curve." He proudly points out that the archive contains articles of less recognized topics, from sadomasochistic sex paraphilia to SIDS to psychopathy at the workplace, which continue to be "terrific references to scientists and attorneys for their case work."
For the past few years, Welner has been developing the Depravity Scale, a nationwide effort to construct a standardized instrument for sentencing that courts can one day use to distinguish the relative severity of different crimes. The project includes surveys hosted at www.depravityscale.org that involve the general public in forming a consensus about the most depraved elements of crime. Dr. Welner's research has extended to the WIEEO (Welner Inventory for the Everyday Extreme and Outrageous), designed to help clinicians identify the worst of behavior in patients they see in everyday practice.
The Forensic Panel also hosts a highly competitive internship program for graduate students, who come to work in Welner's Manhattan office. There, he uses his cases and research to teach them what they can expect as they develop into forensic professionals.
"One of the great things about being a psychologist or psychiatrist," he says, "is that you use yourself more than other physicians do. You use the areas you know from your life. You come to understand the world through the eyes of the people you examine and the witnesses who share very personal experiences with you. I appreciate policy issues and challenges in our society in a way that I never could were I to be in academia or spending all of my time in a hospital." In addition, the work is a real challenge, full of surprises. "Intellectually, nothing beats forensic psychiatry. No matter how much you know, and no matter how much you've seen, there's always something unexpected. You can never predict what's coming next in a case, and so you learn to be patient, to keep looking, keep an open mind, and the facts and truth will surface."
The work requires a compulsive investigative temperament, because it's important to question everything and to be accountable to the intense level of scrutiny in the courtroom. "You can't allow yourself to have a bad day in forensics," he says. Dr. Welner puts a lot of attention into the details of a case, because he wants to feel certain about his conclusions. "Every time I guess," he says, "I have a fifty percent chance of being wrong, so I try never to guess."
Dr. Welner notes that whenever psychiatrists get involved in a legal case, there's a potential for tension. "The attorney's priorities are justice. Our priorities are truth. We have to concern ourselves with being right, and there are tensions inherent in those agendas that can't be solved."
He believes that certain court decisions could benefit from improved clarity of scientific legal terms, and toward that end he is developing The Depravity Scale — a standardizing barometer of depraved crimes and evil actions in the everyday.