Depraved heart murder is a characterization of a particular circumstance of second degree murder. Second degree murder, which criminal law defines as a depraved heart murder, is characterized by murder conducted with reckless disregard for the consequences of the preceding act.
West Virginia was considering adopting a set of special jury instructions in cases when the prosecution was seeking convictions of second degree murder and believed the murderer was depraved. In order for the jury to sustain a guilty verdict, the killer must have engaged in a grossly reckless act which resulted in the unintentional killing of another person and the death was caused with extreme indifference to both the value of individual life and the safety of anyone who was in the area where the act took place.
Depraved indifference, which is more commonly used term for depraved heart murder, can overcome the requirement of proving intent to kill in murder cases because the extreme indifference the killer shows towards life is more serious than their lack of intent to kill the particular victim.
One example is a father who indiscriminately shoots a gun into a crowd of people and kills his own son who he did not know was in the crowd. No matter how much the father loved the son, and would have acted to protect him if he was aware the son was in danger from another person, his indiscriminate discharging of the gun leaves him eligible for prosecution under second degree murder charges. Criminal law considers the discharging of the gun into a crowd of people such a heinous act that displays a generally malicious disposition.
Depraved heart murder is very closely related to involuntary manslaughter, but the important distinction that criminal law makes is how severe the disregard of other people is. Manslaughter occurs when there is general negligence to recognize the potential actions of the individual have to result in the harm of another person.
Second degree murder characterized by depraved indifference is when a person ignores the probability that death will occur as a result of their actions. Second degree murder by reason of depraved indifference is generally committed by individuals with sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies who see the rights and status of other people as inferior to the killer’s own existence.