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In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is an action where a defendant acts with a "depraved indifference" to human life and where such act results in a death. In a depraved-heart murder a defendant commits an act even though they know their act runs an unusually high risk of causing death or serious bodily harm to someone else. If the risk of death or bodily harm is great enough, ignoring it demonstrates a "depraved indifference" to human life and the resulting death is considered to have been committed with malice aforethought  In most states, depraved-heart killings constitute second-degree murder.
Common law background
Depraved-heart murder is the form of murder that establishes that the willful doing of a dangerous and reckless act with wanton indifference to the consequences and perils involved, is just as blameworthy, and just as worthy of punishment, when the harmful result ensues, as is the express intent to kill itself. This highly blameworthy state of mind is not one of mere negligence.... It is not merely one even of gross criminal negligence.... It involves rather the deliberate perpetration of a knowingly dangerous act with reckless and wanton unconcern and indifference as to whether anyone is harmed or not. The common law treats such a state of mind as just as blameworthy, just as anti-social and, therefore, just as truly murderous as the specific intents to kill and to harm.
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 , in which the court affirmed the second-degree murder conviction of a teenager for a death arising from a game of Russian roulette.
Under the Model Penal Code
Depraved-heart murder is recognized in the Model Penal Code § 210.2(1)(b). 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".
Under the Criminal Code of Canada, murder can be broken down into first- and second-degree. However, second-degree murder requires, at minimum, subjective knowledge that death is a likely consequence of the defendant's actions. Mere recklessness, no matter how extreme, is not sufficient to burden the defendant with the stigma of being labeled a murderer. The circumstances that give rise to depraved-heart second-degree murder in the US only constitute manslaughter in Canada.
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 one 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.
In the 1946 case Commonwealth v. Malone, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the conviction of a teenager on the charge second degree murder using the depraved-heart doctrine. The teenager in question had set up a game of Russian roulette which ended in the death of another teenager, a friend of the defendant. When tried for the crime of murder, his defense argued that since he had no intent to kill, the defendant could not be convicted of murder. The prosecution successfully argued using the depraved-heart doctrine that his recklessness and carelessness amounted to a level of negligence sufficient to serve as evidence of criminally culpable intent.
- 1.^a Full Citation: Debettencourt v. State, 48 Md. App. 522, 530, 428 A.2d 479, 484 (1981)
- Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (Pa. 1946).
- Bonnie, R.J. et al. Criminal Law, Second Edition. Foundation Press, New York, NYL 2004, p. 797
- Jenée Desmond-Harris (May 1, 2015). "An officer has been charged with depraved heart murder in Freddie Gray's death. What is that?". vox.com. Retrieved 1 May 2015.
- Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (PA 1946)
- American Law Institute Model Penal Code (Official Draft, 1962)