In California, the Penal Code clearly separates homicides into two distinct categories of murder and manslaughter. The primary difference between them centers around two words. Aforethought and malice. Section 187 of the Penal Code provides that a homicide committed with malice aforethought constitutes the charge of murder, where an unlawful killing with the absence of malice constitutes the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Malice and forethought are also used to further define the categories of murder, specifically first and second degree. There are three categories of second degree murder, one of which is depraved heart murder.
Depraved Heart Murder Defined
Depraved heart murder is murder that has been committed with implied malice. You will find that most courts in the state of California forgo the depraved heart label and refer to this crime simply as defined malice murder. To further clarify, implied malice is defined as unintentional killing as the result of extremely reckless behavior.
To be considered a depraved heart murder, two defining elements must be present. The first is that an unlawful act was committed, and that the act was committed by a person who was fully aware of the potentially dangerous consequences and chose to continue to act with deliberate disregard for human life.
Examples and Cases Involving Depraved Heart Murder
To better understand what depraved heart murder is, perhaps it’s best to lay out a couple examples and examine them more closely.
A couple is having a domestic dispute in a bottom level apartment of a complex. The argument gets heated and one of the parties brings out a gun. Their intent is to scare and threaten the person they are arguing with, so they point the gun at the ceiling and shoot. The problem is that someone was standing directly above them.
There was no actual intent to kill or cause harm in this situation, however, the defendant knew in no uncertain terms that their actions were reckless, with the potential to endanger human life, yet they continued to act anyway.
One of the most famous depraved heart murder cases in recent history involves a Baltimore police officer and the death of inmate Freddie Gray. During transport, Mr. Gray was shackled inside the vehicle, but not secured. It is then reported that the driver drove the car recklessly, without regard to safety of the passenger. Mr. Gray sustained injuries and vocally expressed the need for medical attention, which were allegedly ignored.
Mr. Gray died several days after being jailed, possibly from the injuries incurred during transport. Given the circumstances, the officer driving the vehicle was charged with depraved heart murder. He was found to be not guilty a year later.
Potential Sentencing and Defenses for a Depraved Heart Murder Charge
In California, second degree murder, which includes depraved heart cases, comes with sentencing of 15 years to life. The minimal number of years is increased to 20 when the crime involves shooting a firearm from a motor vehicle. Courts are also allowed to take prior records into consideration when sentencing and determining parole eligibility.
If you’re facing a depraved heart murder charge, you may be found not guilty under the following circumstances.
- The act was committed in self-defense, or the defense of another person
- There is adequate and acceptable justification
- Insanity or lack of mental capacity can be proven
- Provocation or heat of passion to reduce the charge to manslaughter
Second degree murder charges are serious and can without question change lives forever. When you’re in need of legal counsel and advice on California’s depraved heart murder laws, we’re here to help. Contact an experienced murder defense attorney today.