People v. Terrance Williams
Factual Background: The complainant and Williams became sexually involved. During their initial encounters they used protection. Eventually they had unprotected sex after Williams assured the complainant repeatedly that it was safe to do so. The two had frequently discussed HIV transmission and the need to avoid infection. Williams subsequently informed the complainant that he might be HIV positive. The complainant broke off the relationship and learned that he had contracted HIV requiring life-long medication. Williams subsequently sent the complainant a letter admitting that he knew he was HIV positive when he encouraged the complainant to engage in unprotected sex. Expressing remorse, Williams explained that he had been so deeply in love with the complainant his judgment had been flawed. The complainant then contacted the police.
A grand jury indicted Williams on one count of first-degree reckless endangerment and one count of third-degree assault. The defense moved to dismiss based on legal insufficiency. The motion court reduced the first-degree reckless endangerment count to second-degree reckless endangerment finding that there was insufficient evidence that Williams acted with “the requisite depraved reckless state.” The court also found that HIV did not pose a grave risk of death. The prosecution appealed and the appellate division affirmed.
Majority Holding: The Court repeated that depraved indifference is a culpable mental state which means the same thing in the murder and reckless endangerment statutes. A person can be convicted of such a crime where only a single victim is involved in rare situations, specifically where brutality is directed against a vulnerable victim, “combined with utter indifference to the life or safety of the helpless victim.”
Here there was no evidence of depraved indifference such as a malevolent desire for the victim to contract HIV or utter indifference to the victim’s fate. Defendant’s actions were reckless, selfish, reprehensible, though not enough to make out a prima facie case of depraved indifference. Defendant’s remorse demonstrated through circumstantial evidence that he was concerned for the victim, and there was no evidence before the grand jury of wanton cruelty or brutality.
Piggott Dissent: Prosecution presented legally sufficient prima facie evidence of depraved indifference. Defendant knew he was HIV positive. The victim was unaware of defendant’s status and defendant intentionally withheld this information. Facts established at the very least that defendant acted with wanton cruelty and utter indifference. Expression of remorse is irrelevant because critical inquiry is the actor’s state of mind at the time of the offense.
CAL observes: This case represents the court’s ongoing debate about what constitutes depraved indifference in the context of one- on- one encounters. The Court has consistently expressed that in such circumstances the depraved indifference standard will rarely be met. The problem is that “juries, especially in cases with inflammatory facts, will often find depraved indifference where the evidence does not support it.” People v. Heidgen, 22 N.Y.3d 259, 332 (2013)(Smith, J., dissenting).