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Mens rea may be demonstrated by circumstantial evidence. In the event of an unintentional killing of a single individual, depraved indifference may be established where the defendant, acting with a conscious objective not to kill but to harm, engages in torture or a brutal, prolonged and ultimately fatal course of conduct against a particularly vulnerable victim. The defendant's actions must reflect wanton cruelty, brutality, or callousness and be combined with utter indifference to the life or safety of the victim. Depraved indifference is best understood as an utter disregard for the value of human life, a willingness to act not because one intends harm, but because one simply doesn't care whether grievous harm results or not.
After the January 1996 death of her daughter, defendant Brenda Synder was arrested and charged with, among other things, three counts of murder in the second degree, including intentional murder, depraved indifference murder, and depraved indifference murder of a person under 11 years old. She was also charged with attempted intentional murder of her son, and multiple counts of both assault in the first degree and reckless endangerment. The People's case was based entirely on the theory that defendant attempted to cause breathing problems in both of her children by suffocating them for the purpose of collecting government benefits. To that end, the People presented extensive testimony from the numerous pediatricians, specialists, nurses, emergency personnel, and social workers who cared for the children or otherwise interacted with defendant and her children from the birth of defendant's son until the death of defendant's daughter four years later. In 2001, defendant was convicted by jury verdict of depraved indifference murder, assault in the first degree (four counts) and reckless endangerment in the first degree (eight counts), and was thereafter sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 50 years to life. On appeal, defendant argued that the evidence did not support a finding that she committed any of the acts alleged, that she possessed the necessary mens rea or that she caused injury to either of her children.
Under the circumstances, was the evidence sufficient to support defendant’s conviction?
The Court noted that in reviewing the legal sufficiency of a verdict, it must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, and determine whether there was any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury, and as a matter of law, satisfy the proof and burden requirements for every element of the crime charged. In this case, the Court concluded that the record contained legally sufficient evidence that defendant repeatedly suffocated her children knowing that she was subjecting them to a grave risk of death and caused them serious physical injury, and that, in doing so, she recklessly caused the death of her daughter. The Court further held that mens rea may be demonstrated by circumstantial evidence, and in the event of an unintentional killing of a single individual, depraved indifference may be established where the defendant, acting with a conscious objective not to kill but to harm, engaged in torture or a brutal, prolonged, and ultimately fatal course of conduct against a particularly vulnerable victim. In this case, the proof revealed that defendant repeatedly suffocated her two helpless children and forced them to undergo unnecessary medical procedures, callously causing repeated injury to each of them without regard to the risk of grievous harm posed by her actions, which ultimately resulted in her daughter's death. The evidence revealed that defendant's sole reason for wishing that her children would not die as a result of her repeated, brutal acts was so that she might continue to torture them, and thereby continue to receive disability benefits. This wish -- to be able to indefinitely continue brutalizing her children for financial gain -- cannot constitute anything but the most utter disregard for the value of human life. Indeed, defendant's wish to continue to profit from her children's pain and suffering was cruelly depraved. Thus, the Court found that the evidence of depraved indifference was legally sufficient to support defendant’s convictions.