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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, defendants commit 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 some states, depraved-heart killings constitute second-degree murder, while in others, the act would be charged with varying degrees of manslaughter.
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, a Pennsylvania case 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".
In Canada, the Criminal Code categorises murder as first- and second-degree for sentencing purposes. However, the Supreme Court held that 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.
1946 Russian roulette case
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.
2015 Death of Freddie Gray
Caesar Goodson, Jr., a Baltimore police officer, was charged on May 21, 2015, with second-degree depraved heart murder for his alleged involvement in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody. Gray died several days after he was arrested and driven in a police van to jail. The van was allegedly driven aggressively with no regard for the safety of the prisoner, who was not adequately secured for safety. Further, the prisoner was shackled preventing him from protecting himself. The prosecution alleged that the injuries were inflicted during the ride and that pleas for medical attention were ignored. Officer Goodson was charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder.
- 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).
- 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.
- Bonnie, R.J. et al. Criminal Law, Second Edition. Foundation Press, New York, NYL 2004, p. 797
- "§ 163.118¹ Manslaughter in the first degree". http://www.oregonlaws.org. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
- "Robinson v. State, 517 A.2d 94, 307 Md. 738 - CourtListener.com". CourtListener. Retrieved May 22, 2015.
- Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (PA 1946)
- American Law Institute Model Penal Code (Official Draft, 1962)
- R v Martineau,  2 SCR 633.
- "Baltimore grand jury indicts police in death of Freddie Gray". reuters.com. Retrieved May 22, 2015.
- "What is 'depraved-heart' murder?" (USA Today)
- "What Is ‘Depraved Heart Murder’?" (Time Magazine)
- "What is depraved-heart murder in Maryland?" (The Washington Post)