Tuesday column looking at legal history of depraved-heart murder in Maryland, based on widely-used textbook by veteran Maryland judge

The line from the murder of 15-year-old Adrian Edmonds on July 14, 1992, to the death in police custody of Freddie Gray runs from West Baltimore to the grand old courthouse on Calvert Street, to Annapolis and Maryland's highest court, and from there into a trusted textbook on the various forms of homicide by a widely respected judge who lectures other judges on the subject.

The common line in both cases is a legal principle that, barring a court decision otherwise, a jury will be challenged to grasp and consider this fall: depraved-heart murder.

Advertisement

That is the most serious charge among those filed against the Freddie Gray Six. Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the Baltimore police van in which the medical examiner's office has concluded Gray sustained his fatal injury, is alone charged with that crime. He faces several other charges, but the one that has drawn the most attention sounds like the stuff of Dickens' Old Bailey or Calvert's colony. But it is, in fact, a category of murder of relatively recent acceptance in Maryland.

Don't feel bad if you had never heard of depraved-heart murder before the charges against Goodson were announced. I hadn't, either, and wrongly pronounced the term with emphasis on "heart," as if the accused had been charged with attacking a vital organ.

According to "Criminal Homicide Law," written by Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., a retired but still active appellate judge, it was a 1975 ruling by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, that marked the first time Maryland identified depraved-heart murder by name, albeit in passing.

Six years later, in another criminal case, depraved-heart murder received fuller analysis, with the Court of Appeals describing it as "a dangerous and reckless act with wanton indifference to the consequences and perils involved."

Additionally, the court said depraved-heart murder is "just as blameworthy, and just as worthy of punishment, when the harmful result ensues, as is the express intent to kill itself."

So it's an offense more serious than, say, homicide that results from negligence.

Here's an example cited by Moylan, a longtime judge who was Baltimore state's attorney in the 1960s.

About 11 p.m. on a hot, humid Tuesday, July 14, 1992, eight young men — later described by the Court of Special Appeals as "arrogant and swaggering [and] acting like a group of drunken cowboys" — engaged in a shootout near the intersection of Presstman and Division streets in West Baltimore.

Numerous shots were fired. A 9-mm bullet struck and killed Adrian Edmonds as she sat on a friend's porch steps and held her toddler son. The boy was wounded but survived.

Police arrested five suspects said to be gang members. Four of them pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received sentences ranging from 10 months to 10 years. David L. "Diesel" Alston went to trial and was convicted of depraved-heart murder. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

In appealing his conviction, Alston claimed that he did not fire the fatal shot — that, in fact, the bullet that killed Edmonds had come from the gun of a rival known as "B.O." Therefore, Alston argued, he should not have been found to be an accomplice to Edmonds' murder.

Three years later, in July 1995, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Alston's actions were consistent with depraved-heart murder — a reckless, vicious disregard for human life.

"There would have been no mutual combat, and no murder of an innocent person, but for the willingness of both groups to turn an urban setting into a battleground," the court found. "In this sense, each participant is present, aiding and abetting each other participant."

So, the court ruled, anyone involved in a shootout that results in death may be convicted of murder.

Advertisement

None of the facts of the deaths of Edmonds and Gray are the same; they are not even similar. And yet, the state has charged Goodson, the driver of the police van, with Gray's death, suggesting that the officer exhibited the same "depraved heart" and engaged in the same malicious and reckless behavior as a gunman in a gang shootout.

Given what we know about what happened to Gray on the day of his arrest, that strikes me as a stretch. And it likely explains why the state also charged Goodson with involuntary manslaughter, though I remain confused about the difference even after three readings of the chapter in Moylan's book titled, "Conviction for involuntary manslaughter of the gross negligence variety not inconsistent with conviction for second-degree murder of the depraved heart variety."

Some of the terms to describe the two offenses are the same — "wanton," "reckless disregard" — a fact owing to the evolution of law.

"When the awareness of depraved-heart murder finally dawned," Moylan notes, "most, if not all, of the choice adjectives had already been committed elsewhere."

The judge helpfully describes involuntary manslaughter as "junior varsity depraved heart murder." That is, perhaps, something more palatable to a jury in the rare position of judging the criminal culpability of a cop.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He also hosts "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement