Depraved Heart Murder: Meaning of Charge Against Baltimore Officer in Freddie Gray's Death

Police in riot gear block a street in Baltimore April 28, 2015. Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters

On Friday, Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced six police officers would be charged in the case of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who allegedly died of a spinal cord injury sustained during an illegal arrest. Gray allegedly did not receive medical treatment immediately, though he requested it several times, and was not safely buckled into the police wagon, a violation of Baltimore Police Department regulations.

Of the six officers involved, Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. faces the most, and the most severe, charges: second-degree depraved heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, manslaughter by vehicle in both gross and criminal negligence and misconduct in office. The depraved heart murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

"Depraved heart murder is a super manslaughter case. It is like taking a loaded gun and firing it down the street. You kill someone standing on the other side of the street with that shot. You didn't intend that specific victim but you killed someone," Walter Balint, a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore with 33 years of experience, told Newsweek.

The charge, Balint added, is "fairly unusual": He has seen only one case of it tried in his career. Two other criminal defenders, one in New York City and another in Atlanta, also said it was one of the more unusual charges.

"They will try to mitigate down to being a manslaughter, to prove that your intention was not to injure anyone. Depraved heart is a higher form of manslaughter," Balint explained. "There is no indication that the police went out to kill Freddie Gray specifically, but he was out there and it is an extremely unfortunate situation that he was killed."

Legal experts disagreed as to whether the six officers would be tried together or separately.

"They will probably consolidate all of the cases, one trial of six police officers that acted in concert, who worked together," said Barry Slotnick, a criminal defense lawyer.

Balint said if he were representing any of the officers, he would urge "the cases to be severed and tried individually. I'm not sure any judge would let all six be tried together. I think there would be six separate trials. Each officer will say their level of involvement will be more or less. Usually one or two will be the main focus."

As for the chances of Goodson receiving the maximum penalty of 30 years if found guilty, Balint was unsure, as there were few cases to compare it to directly.

Baltimore's mayor on Friday said five of the six officers are in custody; it was unclear whether Goodson had yet been taken into custody or retained a lawyer.