depraved heart murder | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

A depraved heart murder is a killing as a result of gross negligence or what the Model Penal Code calls a “wanton disregard for the value of human life.”

Depraved heart murder is a term used in criminal law that refers to an extreme form of recklessness resulting in death. It is sometimes also referred to as “abandoned and malignant heart murder”. The concept of depraved heart murder originated in English common law and has been adopted by many jurisdictions in the United States, including the Model Penal Code.

In order to be convicted of depraved heart murder, the prosecution must prove that the defendant acted with an extreme disregard for human life. This means that the defendant must have engaged in conduct that created a high degree of risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person, and that they did so with the knowledge that their actions could cause such harm. The defendant’s actions must also have been so reckless or wanton that they amount to a disregard for the value of human life.

A classic example of depraved heart murder is shooting into a crowded train car without specifically targeting any individual. In this scenario, the defendant has exhibited a wanton disregard for human life by creating a high degree of risk of death or serious bodily injury to multiple individuals. The defendant’s actions were not premeditated or intentional, but they were reckless and showed a callous disregard for the value of human life.

The punishment for depraved heart murder varies by jurisdiction, but it is typically classified as second-degree murder or manslaughter. In some states, it is considered a separate offense altogether. The punishment for this crime is usually less severe than that for first-degree murder, which requires a specific intent to kill. However, it is still a very serious offense that can carry significant prison time.

It is worth noting that this is a controversial concept, with some legal scholars arguing that it is overly broad and can result in unjust convictions. They argue that it can be difficult to distinguish between depraved heart murder and other forms of recklessness that do not rise to the level of criminal conduct. Additionally, some argue that depraved heart murder can be used as a “catch-all” charge to convict individuals who were not actually responsible for a death but whose actions created a situation that led to a fatal outcome.

Despite these criticisms, depraved heart murder remains an important concept in criminal law, particularly in cases where an individual’s reckless or wanton behavior has led to the death of another person.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023


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