In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is a type of murder where an individual acts with a "depraved indifference" to human life and where such act results in a death, despite that individual not explicitly intending to kill. 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 a person. 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
It [`depraved heart' murder] is the form [of murder] that establishes that the wilful 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 modified Russian roulette in which each player pointed and fired the gun at the other, eventually resulting in the death of one of them.
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. The guidelines start with the recommended sentence for murder being 12 years if the offender is under 18; see Starting Points for Murder. An offender 18 years of age or older, will receive a minimum non-parole period of 15 years as a starting point. Penalties increase when at least one aggravating factor (as defined in the Criminal Justice Act) can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In cases involving multiple murders, a second (multiple) murder conviction(s), or the murder of a police officer, then the detention term can be the prisoner's whole life. 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 of 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. He was found not guilty on June 23, 2016. Of the six officers charged 3 were acquitted, and charges were dropped against the remaining three.
- Commonwealth v. Malone, 354 Pa. 180, 47 A.2d 445 (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". www.oregonlaws.org. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
- Robinson v. State, 307 Md. 738, 517 A.2d 94 (1986), quoting DeBettencourt v. State, 48 Md. App. 522, 530, 428 A.2d 479, 484 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1981)
- 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)
- "Freddie Gray: Baltimore officer cleared of murder"(BBC News)
- "Freddie Gray death: Grand jury indicts police officers"(CNN)