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Manslaughter, Reckless Endangerment And The States Of Mind Of Recklessness And Depraved Indifference

People v. Lewie 2011 NY Slip Op 04766                                                                                       Decided June 9, 2011

Issue: The Court of Appeals discusses the distinction between the states of mind of recklessness and depraved indifference in the context of manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

Holding: The Court found that the defendant was guilty of the manslaughter charge, but reversed on the reckless endangerment because the facts did not support the depraved indifference state of mind.

Facts: The jury convicted defendant of second degree manslaughter and first degree reckless endangerment for her role in the events leading to the death of her son.  I so doing, the jury found that defendant acted both recklessly and with depraved indifference to human life.

The defendant left her child in the care of her live in boyfriend who physically abused the eight month old boy. Friends and acquaintances of the defendant testified that they saw bruises on the boy and that defendant had expressed that she had knowledge, belief or fear that her boyfriend was abusing the child.  Other evidence was brought out at trial that defendant knew that her boyfriend could be violent and cruel, and that she not only sought no care for the baby, but that she also tried to conceal the injuries.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals found that the critical question as to both the counts of manslaughter and reckless endangerment was what was the defendant’s state of mind when, over a period of six weeks, she repeatedly left her baby with the man who abused and eventually killed him.

The Manslaughter Charge And Reckless State Of Mind

Manslaughter under Penal Law 125.15(1) is applicable to someone who recklessly causes the death of another person.  Recklessly is defined in Penal Law §15.05(3) “a person acts recklessly when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur.  the risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The Court of Appeals found that the main issue was whether the defendant was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk.  The Court found that it was not enough that defendant should have known the child’s life was in danger, or that she did know the child could be seriously hurt.  She must have actually known of, and consciously disregarded, a risk to the child’s life.  It is not necessary that the defendant knew the child would die, or believed it likely.  Even a small risk that  a baby will die of child abuse is substantial and unjustifiable.

The Court of Appeals found that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the defendant knew such a risk existed because the defendant knew, or at least believed it possible, that the boyfriend was hitting, shaking and big=ting her child.

The Court of Appeals noted that the defendant knew of the risk that was of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The Charge of Reckless Endangerment

The Court of Appeals found that the mental culpability necessary to support defendant’s reckless endangerment conviction is greater than that required to support her manslaughter conviction; she must have acted not only recklessly, but also with depraved indifference to human life.

Penal Law 120.25 defines reckless endangerment in the first degree as “a person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.

Depraved Indifference More Clearly Defined

The Court of Appeals found that the distinction between conscious disregard of a known risk to human life (required for a reckless manslaughter conviction) and depraved indifference to human life (required for a depraved indifference  murder of first degree reckless endangerment conviction) can be hard to grasp.  The word indifference is to be taken literally: depraved indifference is best understood as an utter disregard for the value of human life – a willingness to act …because one simply doesn’t care whether grievous harm results or not.

A person who is depravedly indifferent is not just willing to take a grossly unreasonable risk to human life – that person does not care how the risk turns out.  This state of mind is found only in rare cases.  In this case the Court found that although the defendant cared too little about her child’s safety, the evidence could not support  a finding that she did not care at all.  The evidence showed that defendant feared the worst and – recklessly, as the jury found – hoped for the best.

The evidence that contributed to her manslaughter conviction actually was favorable to the defendant on the depraved indifference charge.  Her statement that she was scared and never knew what she was going to come home to shows that she was fearful of harm to her baby, not that she was indifferent to the possibility.  And her telling her live in boyfriend to shake the teddy bear instead of the baby demonstrated that she was trying, however weakly and ineffectually, to protect the child.