Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Depraved Heart Murder Definition:

Where an individual under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, recklessly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby caused the death of another person.

Also known as depraved-mind murder.

In Robinson v State, Justice Adkins of the Court of Appeals of Maryland relied on this extract of extant jurisprudence:

"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."

In Windham, Justice Prather of the Supreme Court of Mississippi adopted these words:

"The killing of a human being without the authority of law by any means or in any manner shall be murder ... when done in the commission of an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved heart, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual....[D]epraved-heart murder involves a higher degree of recklessness from which malice or deliberate design may be implied...

"Under the traditional view, death which resulted from a reckless act directed toward a particular individual would not be deemed to be within the scope of depraved-heart murder statutes. To constitute depraved-heart murder, the act must have manifested a reckless indifference to human life in general. For example, an unjustified shooting at a passing train or into a house, which generally poses a risk to a group of individuals and which results in death, is a familiar example of traditional depraved-heart murder (eg. shooting into a room; shooting into caboose of passing train).

"The traditional view has since evolved. An act which poses a risk to only one individual and which results in that individual's death may also be deemed depraved-heart murder. For example, death which resulted from a beating has been deemed to be within the scope of depraved-heart murder statutes. "

In People v Register, Justice Simons of the New York Court of Appeals wrote:

"(A) depraved mind murder ... conviction must be supported by evidence that defendant under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life recklessly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby caused the death of another person. A person acts recklessly when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk, but to bring defendant's conduct within the murder statute, the People were required to establish also that defendant's act was imminently dangerous and presented a very high risk of death to others and that it was committed under circumstances which evidenced a wanton indifference to human life or a depravity of mind. The crime differs from intentional murder in that it results not from a specific, conscious intent to cause death, but from an indifference to or disregard of the risks attending defendant's conduct."

In Substantive Criminal Law, the authors described depraved-heart murder as:

"Extremely negligent conduct, which creates what a reasonable man would realize to be not only an unjustifiable but also a very high degree of risk of death or serious bodily injury to another or to others - though unaccompanied by any intent to kill or do serious bodily injury - and which actually causes the death of another, may constitute murder."


  • LaFave, Wayne and Scott, Austin, Substantive Criminal Law, Vol. 2, (St. Paul, Minn.:  West Publishing Co., 1986),  §7.4, pp. 199-200
  • People v Register, 60 NY 2d 270 (1983)
  • Robinson v State, 517 A. 2d 94 (1986)
  • R. v. Martineau, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 633
  • Windham v State, Windham v. State, 602 So. 2d 798 (1992)

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