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What is Depraved Indifference?

Leigia Rosales
Updated May 16, 2024
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Depraved indifference is a standard used to show mens rea, or the state of mind of a defendant. It is commonly used in the law to determine whether a defendant is guilty of murder, manslaughter or another similar crime. Countries such as The United States and England have used the depraved indifference standard as a basis for determining the legal state of mind of a defendant, although it is known as "depraved heart" under English common law.

With few exceptions, all crimes require proof of the defendant's state of mind at the time the crime was committed. A defendant must have acted intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently in order to be convicted of the crime. Murder generally requires that the defendant "intentionally or knowingly" caused the death of the victim. In many cases, premeditation is used to prove the "intentional" element of the crime. Many courts, however, have also allowed the use of "a depraved indifference" standard to show that the person knowingly caused the death of the victim. 

Although courts might vary somewhat with regard to the exact definition of what constitutes depraved indifference, the prosecution generally must show that the defendant caused a death by knowingly engaging in conduct that created a grave risk of death. A person acts with depraved indifference when he or she shows such utter disregard for human life that it is apparent he or she was completely indifferent about creating a risk of death to another human being. This standard focuses on the risk that the defendant's conduct created and his or her lack of concern related to that risk. 

Some jurisdictions also use the depraved indifference standard to enhance what would otherwise be a manslaughter charge to murder. Manslaughter often requires only a showing of recklessness. Although malice aforethought or premeditation are common hallmarks of a murder charge, in cases where the defendant acted with depraved indifference, he or she might be charged with murder despite the fact that the death was unintentional. An example of a situation where depraved indifference could be used to enhance what would otherwise be a manslaughter charge to murder is a death caused by a drunk driver. The driver might not have set out to kill someone nor had malice in his or her heart when he or she acted, but by driving while intoxicated, he or she might have had such utter disregard for human life that his or her actions produced a grave risk of harm — ultimately resulting in another person's death.

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Leigia Rosales
By Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers. Her ability to understand complex topics and communicate them effectively makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006780 — On May 20, 2022

What about a person having coronavirus and won’t quarantine? This person instead goes around people, including his elderly in-laws.

By anon998591 — On Jul 11, 2017

Donasmrs, I agree with you, generally. But if you are over the set limit and know it, the situation changes.

By literally45 — On Mar 25, 2013

Wasn't this term born from a manslaughter case where someone was killed while playing Russian roulette?

By SteamLouis — On Mar 25, 2013

@donasmrs-- I disagree with you. Just because there is a legal standard as depraved indifference doesn't mean that every judge will apply this standard in every case of involuntary murder by a drunk driver.

If it is shown however that the driver was well aware of the possible consequences of his actions when he chose to drive when drunk, he is clearly in a depraved indifference state of mind.

This person has such little regard for human life that he is willing to take the risk of ending someone's life when he drives drunk. This is the basis of this standard. Recklessness and depraved indifference go hand in hand.

By donasmrs — On Mar 24, 2013

I don't think that depraved indifference is a very trustworthy standard. It's not like premeditation.

If we think about the example about drunk driving, I don't think there is any depraved indifference there. We all know that alcohol consumption affects our ability to reason. In that state, people can make wrong decisions like the decision to drive. I don't see how depraved indifference led to murder in this situation.

Does anyone else agree with me?

Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she...
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