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“Depraved heart murder” could put one Baltimore cop in prison for 30 years. Here’s what it means.

A demonstrator celebrates after the May 1 announcement of charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest.
A demonstrator celebrates after the May 1 announcement of charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that Thursday that a grand jury found probable cause to indict all six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died on April 19 from a spinal cord injury after an allegedly brutal arrest and being handcuffed in the back of a police van.

Mosby said the officers will be arraigned on July 2, on charges including manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and assault — as well as one charge that doesn't sound as familiar: depraved heart murder.  It's listed under Officer Caesar Goodson's name on the list of indictments, and it carries a sentence of up to 30 years.

What is depraved heart murder?

"Depraved heart" murder is a description of a specific type of scenario and mindset that can lead a court to decide someone has committed murder. It's actually just one of the many specific kinds of murder you can be charged with if you kill someone in America. (For example, the legal doctrine of "felony murder," which some states use, means you can be charged with murder if you accidentally kill someone while committing a totally separate felony — like robbing a store).

Sometimes it's called "depraved-indifference murder," which means the same thing. Either way, it's how courts in some states talk about the actions of a defendant who demonstrated "callous disregard for human life" that ultimately killed someone. Most states  — including Maryland, where Freddie Gray was killed — consider killing someone in this way a form of second-degree murder.

"The person must show some sort of viciousness or contempt for human life. It is greater than 'negligence' where a person should have been aware of the risk, but failed to see it. The person actually created the risk of harm," Tod W. Burke, Radford University's associate dean and professor of criminal justice, explained in an email to Vox. "With a 'depraved heart' it must be shown that the person committed the homicide 'wantonly.'"

But what exactly do you have to do for a murder to be considered "depraved heart"?

Burke said examples of people who might be convicted of depraved heart murder would include someone who fires a gun into a crowded room, killing someone, or a person who drives a car recklessly into a parade route, striking and killing a bystander.

The exact definition varies by state, and the best way to understand what it takes in Maryland is to look at what the courts have said in previous cases there. Depraved heart murder was described by the judge in one frequently cited 1986 case — Robinson v. State, like this:

  • "A depraved heart murder is often described as a wanton and willful killing. The term 'depraved heart' means something more than conduct amounting to a high or unreasonable risk to human life. The perpetrator must [or reasonably should] realize the risk his behavior has created to the extent that his conduct may be termed willful. Moreover, the conduct must contain an element of viciousness or contemptuous disregard for the value of human life which conduct characterizes that behavior as wanton.'"

    Translation:
    M
    ore than just being careless or reckless, the defendant — in the Gray case, Officer Goodson — should have known that what he was doing could risk a human life and simply didn't care.
  • "The critical feature of 'depraved heart' murder is that the act in question be committed 'under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life."

    Translation:
    The situation suggests that the defendant really didn't care at all whether someone died — this is a must for a finding of depraved heart murder.
  • The terms 'recklessness' or 'indifference,' often used to define the crime, do not preclude an act of intentional injury. They refer to 'recklessness' or 'indifference' to the ultimate consequence of the act — death — not to the act that produces that result."

    Translation:
    Although the definition uses the word "reckless" a lot, that doesn't mean this kind of murder only applies to mistakes. Even if the defendant harmed the victim on purpose, the murder still falls under the "depraved heart" category.

Was Goodson's conduct depraved?

At her May 1 press conference announcing the charges, Mosby said Gray "suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet, and unrestrained" in the paddy wagon.

Once shackled, she said, he was placed on his stomach, head first on the floor of the vehicle. And she said Gray pleaded for medical help, saying he couldn't breathe and asking for his inhaler, but officers ignored him.

The Baltimore Sun reported that week that the city's police have a reputation for so-called "rough rides," when officers allegedly drive police vans recklessly in an attempt to knock around the passengers in the back — who are often shackled but not wearing seat belts. According to the Sun's Doug Donovan and Mark Puente, the 2005 story of Dondi Johnson Sr., whose family received a $7.4 million settlement from the city, is the city's most "sensational": the 43-year-old plumber, who had been arrested for public urination, "was handcuffed and placed in a transport van in good health. He emerged a quadriplegic."

Whether Goodson took Gray on a "rough ride" that day — with a depraved heart, as Mosby said — will be decided in court. But in the meantime, the very existence of the indictments against the officers — especially Goodson's — seem to validate the concerns of protesters who suspected Gray was treated with "callous regard for human life." In other words, like his life didn't matter.

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