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A jury yesterday found James Holmes guilty on all murder counts in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. Holmes killed 12 people in the shooting, and was charged with two murder counts for each: murder in the first degree after deliberation, and murder in the first degree with extreme indifference.
But what is extreme indifference murder, and how does it differ from a standard first degree murder charge?
Colorado Law and the Theater Shooting
Colorado's homicide statutes define extreme indifference murder as knowingly causing the death of another "under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally," while the defendant was "engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to a person or persons other than himself."
The charge is reserved for severe crimes and refers as much to the defendant's intent as to the result. Holmes opened fire on 400 moviegoers, firing 76 shots into the crowded theater and hitting a total of 70 people. Once the jury decided that Holmes wasn't insane at the time of the shooting, it is a short step to decide he acted with an extreme indifference to human life.
Extreme Indifference and Depraved Heart Laws
Other states have extreme indifference or depraved heart murder laws, and in some states acting with extreme indifference can be an aggravating factor in assault or manslaughter charges. In fact, Baltimore Police Officer Caesar R. Goodson, Jr. was charged with second degree depraved heart murder in the homicide of Freddie Gray. Goodson was driving the van when Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury.
Often, it is easier for prosecutors to prove extreme indifference, because they don't need to demonstrate a specific intent to kill a particular person, only conduct that creates a risk of death to any other person or persons. The idea behind the laws is to deter excessively dangerous behavior and provide for additional punishment for wanton crimes.