Depraved-heart murder

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Depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is an American legal term for an action that demonstrates a "callous disregard for human life" and results in death. In most states, depraved-heart killings constitute second-degree murder.[1]

If no death results, such acts would generally be defined as reckless endangerment (sometimes known as "culpable negligence") and possibly other crimes, such as assault.

Common law background[edit]

The common law punishes unintentional homicide as murder if the defendant commits an act of gross recklessness. A classic example of depraved-heart murder under the common law is in the case Commonwealth v. Malone, where the court affirmed the second-degree murder conviction of a teenager for a death arising from a game of Russian roulette.[2]

Under the Model Penal Code[edit]

Depraved-heart murder is recognized in the Model Penal Code § 210.2(1)(b).[3] The Model Penal Code considers unintentional killing to constitute murder when the conduct of the defendant manifests "extreme indifference to the value of human life".

International equivalents[edit]

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, murder can be broken down into 1st- and 2nd-degree. The latter type of murder is equivalent, in that country, to depraved-heart murder.

In England and Wales, murder is not classified into degrees, unlike in Canada, but sentences are more severe in cases where there are more aggravating than mitigating factors. A person who, at the time he or she committed murder, was 18 years of age or older, will receive a life sentence, with a minimum non-parole period of 15 years as a starting point (under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act), unless at least 1 aggravating factor (as defined in the Criminal Justice Act), that would warrant a longer non-parole period to be handed down, can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A 12-year minimum non-parole period applies if the same person was, at the time of the offence, under the age of 18. Murders classified in schedule 21 section 6 or 7, of the Criminal Justice Act, are thus equivalents, under English law, to depraved-heart murder.


  1. ^ Bonnie, R.J. et al. Criminal Law, Second Edition. Foundation Press, New York, NYL 2004, p. 797
  2. ^ Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (PA 1946)
  3. ^ American Law Institute Model Penal Code (Official Draft, 1962)