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Minnesota Supreme Court: Depraved-Mind Murder Requires Mental State of Generalized Indifference to Human Life, Which Cannot Exist Where Defendant Kills With Particularity

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Minnesota held that the mental state necessary for a depraved-minded murder, Minn.Stat. 609.195(a) (2020), is a generalized indifference to human life, which cannot exist when the defendant’s conduct is directed with particularity at the person killed. To the extent that State v. Mytych, 194 NW. 2d 276 (Minn. 1972), held to the contrary, the Court overruled it.

In July 2017, Justine Ruszczyk reported to police that a woman behind her house was screaming. Officer Matthew Harrity drove to the alley behind Ruszcyk’s house with Officer Mohamed Noor in the front passenger’s seat. The officer’s windows were down as they listened for a person in distress. Harrity stopped the vehicle when he saw a bicyclist nearby, and he reportedly heard something hit the cruiser. At the same time, Ruszczyk approached the driver’s side door. Noor removed his service weapon, reached past Harrity’s chest, and shot Ruszczyk in the abdomen, killing her.

At Noor’s trial, he testified he heard Harrity yell “Oh Jesus.” Noor testified Harrity had fear in his eyes and was trying to unholster his gun. Noor then saw a blonde woman approaching Harrity’s door. The woman began raising her right arm toward Harrity, so Noor fired one shot at the woman—and “the threat was gone.”

At the trial, the prosecution stressed that Noor fired specifically at Ruszczyk, stating that “we know from the evidence … that the defendant’s act was specifically directed at Ms. Ruszczyk.” The prosecution also argued for depraved-mind murder because firing the shot also put Harrity and the bicyclist in danger.

The jury convicted Noor of depraved-mind murder and second-degree manslaughter. While the trial court also convicted Noor of those offenses, it sentenced Noor only on the depraved-mind murder.

Noor appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the evidence showed his conduct was directed at the person killed, prohibiting his conviction for depraved-mind murder. The Court of Appeals, relying in part on Mytych (upholding conviction on third-degree depraved-mind murder despite the victims being known to and targeted by the defendant), rejected his argument and affirmed. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted Noor’s petition for review.

The Court observed that under § 609.195(a), third-degree murder occurs when a person without an intent to kill “causes the death of another by perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others” that “evinces a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” Noor’s argument, known as the “particular-person exclusion” was that governing case law prohibits a conviction of depraved-mind murder when the defendant’s conduct is directed at the person killed. To resolve his claim, the Court first had to interpret the phrase “depraved mind without regard for human life.”

The Court stated that it has interpreted the phrase about 20 times since 1858 and repeatedly affirmed that depraved-mind murder is a general malice crime and is therefore distinct from the particular malice crime of intentional murder. Bonfanti v. State, 2 Minn. 123 (1858). In Bonfanti, the defendant intentionally stabbed the victim to death, so the Court held that his intentional stabbing couldn’t constitute a depraved-mind murder because he had the specific intent to kill the person who was in fact killed—the victim. The Court explained that the “holding in Bonfanti implicitly recognized the distinction between the mental state of general malice.”

“A depraved mind, regardless of human life” is exactly descriptive of general malice,” State v. Weltz, 193 N.W. 42 (Minn. 1923), whereas the mental state of particular malice occurs where the defendant’s actions are directed at a specific person. See 1 Edward Hyde East, A Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown (1806).

The Court discussed numerous precedents (see opinion for citations) wherein the circumstances revealed the defendant directed his or her actions with particularity at the person killed, and in each case, the Minnesota Supreme Court held the crime didn’t constitute depraved-mind murder because of the “particular-person exclusion.” However, in Mytych, the defendant bought a revolver; called in sick at work; flew hundreds of miles under an assumed name; and killed her former fiancé who had secretly married another woman and lied about it in order to engage in further sexual relations with the defendant.

The Mytych Court, inexplicably giving almost absolute deference to a medical expert’s opinion on the legal definition of depraved mind (the expert opined “depraved could mean automatically out of touch with ordinary standards of decency and reality”), affirmed Mytych’s depraved-mind murder conviction.

The Court held Mytych is clearly and manifestly wrong and expressly overruled it to the extent its holding is contrary to the particular-person exclusion. Depraved-mind murder cannot occur where the defendant’s actions were focused on specific person, the Court declared. It explained that depraved-mind murder involves a mental state of general malice, which “refers to conduct evincing indifference to human life in general … does not refer to indifference ‘directed at the person slain.’” State v. Coleman, 957 N.W.2d 72 (Minn. 2021). The Court noted that an example of depraved-mind murder would be a defendant firing a gun indiscriminately into a crowd, the bullet falling where it may.

Turning to the present case, the Court concluded that the facts support the inference that Noor targeted Ruszczyk with particularly, shooting directly at her. Thus, he didn’t possess the requisite mental state of general malice and cannot be convicted of depraved-mind murder.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals; remanded to the district court to vacate Noor’s conviction for depraved-mind murder; and directed he be resentenced on his second-degree manslaughter conviction. See: State v. Noor, 964 N.W.2d 424 (Minn. 2021). 

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