What are “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life?”

The phrase “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” is found in many of our Oregon criminal statutes.

For example, a finding of someone acting in such a way that constitutes “extreme indifference to the value of human life” can be the difference in Manslaughter in the First Degree, or Man 1, and Manslaughter in the Second Degree, or Man 2.

A problem we run in to is that neither the Oregon Legislature nor the Oregon Supreme Court, has clearly defined what are “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” The Oregon Supreme Court has discussed this conundrum in some of its rulings. Specifically, in State v. Boone, 294 Or 630 (1983), the Court analyzed how other states and the Model Penal Code have addressed “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” Ultimately, the Court declined to accept a specific definition and adopted the approach taken by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Hamilton v. Commonwealth, 560 S.W.2d 539 (1977). In fact, the Oregon Supreme Court stated, “the task of defining extreme indifference to human life by analysis rather than anecdote is difficult. The language is subject to varying interpretations.”

Thus, there is no clear answer as to what “extreme indifference to the value of human life” is. The Court adopted a case-by-case approach. It appears that to constitute “extreme indifference to the value of human life” something beyond the mere mental state is necessary. Thus, in the situation of Manslaughter in the First Degree, where a reckless mental state and circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life are required, the State must prove both a reckless mind state and factors that would lead a jury to believe a person acted with extreme indifference to the value of human life.

Rob Crow
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Licensed to practice law in all State & Federal Courts in Oregon.
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