© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Is Depraved Heart Murder? The Unusual Charges Against Officers In Baltimore


A few months into her job as the state's attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby has become the central figure in a story being watched all over the world. And this morning, she came before microphones with both news and a plea for calm.


MARILYN MOSBY: To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for no justice, no peace. Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.

BLOCK: Mosby announced that six Baltimore police officers are now facing criminal charges in the death of Freddie Gray, including second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.


Mosby said he suffered a spinal injury in a police van that led to his death a week later. The medical examiner ruled it a homicide. She also said the officers had no probable cause to arrest Gray. In a moment, we'll learn about the background of this young prosecutor. First, more on the charges facing the police and how fast they came down.

BLOCK: Joining us to do that is David Harris. He's a law professor with the University of Pittsburgh. He writes and teaches about police behavior and the law.

Professor Harris, welcome to the program.

DAVID HARRIS: Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Let's start with the top charge against one police officer, Caesar Goodson. He's the driver of the police van that transported trade Freddie Gray. He's facing a charge of second-degree depraved heart murder with a possible sentence of 30 years. What exactly is depraved heart murder in the state of Maryland?

HARRIS: Yeah, this is a favorite of my students. They love that language. Any second-degree murder is a murder without being premeditated and deliberate. And depraved heart is one of the second-degree murder theories. And what they mean by depraved heart is basically extreme recklessness.

Recklessness is defined in the criminal law as taking a risk you are aware of that could result in injury or death. And when we say it's a bad risk, a criminal risk, that comes to manslaughter, when we says it's an extreme risk, then it comes to depraved heart murder. And this gets used from time to time. The depraved heart language is old common law language.

BLOCK: Does it imply intent? You said it didn't need premeditation, but doesn't require intent?

HARRIS: It does not require intention to kill.

BLOCK: Were you surprised, Professor Harris, when you heard these charges and especially the speed with which these charges were announced?

HARRIS: Because we have so little information so far, Melissa, I think that nobody actually knew what the charges would be. The speed though, was quite remarkable. And I think that's part of the new environment around these cases in the last six to eight months, really, since Ferguson. And that has resulted in these last couple of cases - the one in South Carolina and now this one - when the evidence is there, the authorities go ahead and they bring the charges.

BLOCK: We've been reading about several cases in Baltimore before the case of Freddie Gray where people were left paralyzed after what are called rough rides in police vans. They successfully sued the city for damages. But have you heard of other criminal charges being filed in a case like this one before - not just a civil lawsuit?

HARRIS: No, I don't know of any criminal cases for so-called rough rides myself, but it's easy to imagine how that could result in a civil prosecution if the driving is of a negligent level - not criminal, but civil negligent level - and perhaps designed to inflict a kind of street justice, that's a lawsuit for sure.

BLOCK: So what's the distinction here, do you think? Is it cell phone video? What is it?

HARRIS: In this particular case, we have no cell phone video of what happened inside that van. And we know that when Freddie Gray went into the van, we know he was alive. And then he comes out with a terrible spinal cord injury. That's an injury that is so severe and so unusual that when we see the medical examiner's report, I suspect we'll see comments that tell us that this had to be some kind of really unusual, unlikely circumstance to just be an accident, and therefore unlikely to be an accident. When we combine that with all of the other evidence in the case, in which pleas for medical care were ignored and so forth, you get a pretty bleak picture. Proving the mechanism of the injury is going to be the heart of the prosecutor's case here. It'll be the toughest part for sure. And it'll make the difference between innocent or guilty on the most serious charges.

BLOCK: David Harris is a law professor. He teaches about police behavior and the law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Thanks for being with us.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.