This appeal addresses whether reckless driving alone can sustain a conviction for depraved indifference murder. The Defendant led police on a high-speed chase after stealing a minivan. In addition to speeding and driving on the wrong way down one way streets, the Defendant also ran a red light and narrowly avoided hitting a pedestrian. The Defendant continued to run from police and swerved into multiple lanes to avoid congestion and slower moving vehicles. He finally fatally struck a pedestrian and crashed into a parked vehicle to avoid more damage.
At trial, the Defendant moved twice for dismissal of the depraved indifference murder charge, arguing that the People failed to prove the requisite mens rea. To support these motions, he argued that the evidence provided portrayed him as swerving to avoid hitting any pedestrians or cars, and was merely reckless driving. The Supreme Court denied his first motion and reversed judgment on the second, submitting a charge of depraved indifference murder to the jury. After the jury convicted him, Defendant renewed his motion for dismissal of the depraved indifference charge, only to have the Supreme Court deny the motion. Finally, the Defendant appealed, the Appellate Division affirmed, and this court granted defendant leave to appeal.
Here, the court held that, under the circumstances present in this case, the evidence was insufficient to support the Defendant’s conviction for depraved indifference murder. The court explained that, without evidence of the Defendant’s utter disregard for human life, a conviction for depraved indifference murder could not be upheld. It drew support for this conclusion from the evidence that showed the Defendant swerved to avoid hitting other vehicles and causing more harm. It further explained that, even though the Defendant drove on the wrong side of the road, this conduct was episodic and performed in an effort to avoid hitting other cars and escape the police. Additionally, even though his conduct was admittedly reckless and done in an effort to avoid capture by the police, that alone did not establish the requirements for depraved indifference. Finally, as a matter of policy, if the People’s argument were accepted, charges of depraved indifference murder would arise out of any high-speed police chase that resulted in the death of another. Thus, the court concluded that the charge for depraved indifference murder never should have been submitted to the jury, as a rational jury could not have reasonably convicted the Defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.
The dissent objected on the grounds that the proof of depraved indifference was sufficient. Judge Piggott reasoned that the Defendant did not slow down at intersections, and more importantly, the defendant did not reasonably adjust his reckless driving behavior after almost hitting the first pedestrian. Thus, there was no indication that the reckless Defendant remained fearful, to some extent, for others’ safety.
No. 135, 2014 N.Y. LEXIS 1525, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op. 04878 (N.Y. 2014)