Depraved Indifference Murder in the Context of DWI Homicides in New York

Article excerpt


On a cloudy, drizzly summer night in 2006, Martin Heidgen met a friend for drinks after work. Later in the evening, he attended a party where he continued to drink. By two o'clock in the morning he had become highly intoxicated. He left the party and proceeded to drive home. During the trip, he drove his car onto a divided parkway heading in the wrong direction towards oncoming traffic. He struck a limousine head on, killing the fiftynine-year-old driver and a seven-year-old girl. He was convicted of second-degree murder.

"Thou shalt not kill."1 One of the most fundamental and intuitive maxims of human law and morality is the prohibition of murder. The killing of another person has long been regarded as a lurid and intolerable wrong against society. Laws prohibiting murder have existed for thousands of years and have evolved considerably as society and the legal system have become more advanced. The modern understanding of the word murder is complex. Even more complex is the law that applies to homicide generally. The law of homicide is a law of degrees, hinging on delicate issues of circumstance, human action, culpability, causation, mental state, emotion, risk, and semantics. This complexity can be a valuable tool for dealing with the infinite number of variables present in the real world: The ability to account for subtle differences and to administer punishment that is custom fitted to the crime committed is an ideal way to achieve fairness and promote justice. Unfortunately, this complexity can also cause confusion, resulting in a misapplication of the law and undermining the very purpose these statutes were meant to achieve.

At common law, murder was defined simply as "unlawful homicide done with 'malice aforethought.' "2 The term malice aforethought encompassed, among other things, killings committed with "extremely reckless indifference to the value of human life (the so-called abandoned and malignant heart)."3 This brand of murder applied to actions that carried a high likelihood of death without being aimed at anyone in particular, but were perpetrated with a full awareness of the probable consequences.4 Such killings were considered as culpable as intentional murder.5 This designation remains in New York's murder statute today, which includes as second-degree murder a reckless killing committed "[u]nder circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life."6

The depraved indifference murder statute in New York has remained unchanged since 1967, but cases applying this doctrine have caused considerable confusion and resulted in an ongoing debate among judges and others in the legal community. The application of this statute in New York courts has evolved significantly over the last several years. These recent developments have been made in an effort to alleviate the confusion, but have left the courts divided and caused many to question whether this doctrine is being applied as the legislature originally intended.

In severe cases, state prosecutors have sought murder convictions under New York's depraved indifference murder statute for drunk driving fatalities.7 Families of victims and staunch opponents of drunk driving maintain that these convictions are justified: They see murder convictions as a step in the right direction towards greater deterrence and increased punishment for driving while intoxicated ("DWI") offenses.8 Although one purpose of New York homicide law is surely to punish deaths caused by drunk driving, the administration of this punishment cannot extend beyond the framework of the New York Penal Law ("NYPL"). It is the position of this Note that the overwhelming majority of DWI homicides fail to rise to the level of a depraved indifference to human life, and that to seek a murder conviction in these cases is an overextension and misapplication of New York homicide law.

This Note will proceed in four parts. Part I will give a brief overview of the culpable mental states and homicide crimes in the NYPL in order to explain the various offenses and their relation to one another in terms of conduct, culpability, and punishment. …