An Exception to the Slayer Statute
August 6, 2015 § 1 Comment
Only yesterday I posted here about the danger posed by the untreated mentally ill in society.
Last week the MSSC handed down a decision in a case involving a “severely mentally ill man,” a homicide, and an adjudication at the trial level that he was not to inherit from his victim. The court reversed and remanded.
Here is the brief statement of grisly facts from the opinion by Justice Randolph in Estate of Armstrong: Armstrong v. Armstrong, handed down July 30, 2015:
¶2. On August 7, 2010, Joan Armstrong was contacted by several of her son’s neighbors, who were worried about their children’s safety, after they noticed John acting erratically. John had a long history of serious mental illness, having been treated since 1989. [Fn omitted] Joan picked up John at his apartment and brought him back to her condominium. Joan had invited some of her friends to come over to the condominium swimming pool. Worried that his mother was leaving him, John went upstairs and retrieved a crochet-covered brick, which he used to hit Joan repeatedly over the head. He then moved her body to the bathroom and repeatedly stabbed her. He informed law enforcement officers from the Ocean Springs Police Department (OSPD) that he was preparing her body to be buried by bleeding her.
¶3. Joan’s death certificate listed her cause of death as “contusion of brain with subdural and subarachnoid hemorrhage [due to] multiple blunt force injuries of head.” Joan also sustained multiple stab wounds and rib fractures. Joan’s death was listed as a homicide due to the multiple strikes to her head.
John, who experienced delusions and hallucinations and had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, admitted to the police and his sister that he had killed his mother. He was found by the circuit court not to be competent to stand trial, and was sent to Whitfield until he might become competent to stand trial.
Joan’s testate estate was opened, and John, along with his siblings, were beneficiaries. The executor filed a motion to declare John’s devise void, pursuant to MCA 91-5-33, known as the “Slayer Statute,” which provides in part as follows:
If any person shall wilfully cause or procure the death of another in any manner, he shall not take the property, or any part thereof, real or personal, of such other under any will, testament, or codicil. Any devise to such person shall be void and, as to the property so devised, the decedent shall be deemed to have died intestate.
A guardian ad litem was appointed. She defended the motion on several grounds, but primarily on the basis that the executor failed to show that John had willfully caused Joan’s death as prescribed in the statute. The chancellor found that willfulness as provided in the statute had to be interpreted in a civil, not criminal, context, and that John’s willfulness was evidenced by:
1. John was discovered at Joan’s home with Joan’s body by law enforcement. John was covered in Joan’s blood.
2. In the immediate aftermath of the homicide, John confessed to law enforcement. This confession was witnessed by John’s sister-in-law who offered testimony at this motion hearing.
3. OSPD, at the conclusion of their investigation, issued a Complaint alleging John, “feloniously, willfully and unlawfully with deliberate design” caused the death of Joan.
4. A Jackson County Grand Jury returned an indictment against John for the willful and felonious murder of Joan.
The chancellor granted the motion, and John’s GAL appealed.
In a case of first impression, the MSSC reversed and remanded the case to the chancery court for a determination whether John was insane at the time of the killing:
¶22. It is clear from well-established precedent that willful is synonymous with intentionally, knowingly, deliberately, and purposely. In order for the Slayer Statute to apply to this case, John must have acted willfully in killing his mother. The record reveals that John has suffered from hallucinations and delusions for more than two decades. He has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. John’s thoughts are disorganized and very difficult to understand, and he often speaks in “word salad,” which means that he uses words that are unrelated and disconnected. However, the record is silent as to John’s mental state at the time of the killing.
¶23. In this matter of first impression, this Court concludes that Mississippi should follow the majority of states and holds that the Slayer Statute requires a finding of willful conduct to preclude a person from inheriting from his or her victim. Because an insane person lacks the requisite ability willfully to kill another person, the Slayer Statute is not applicable in cases where the killer is determined to be insane at the time of the killing.
[T]he words used by Mr. Justice Nelson, when Chief Justice of New York, said that “self-destruction by a fellow being bereft of reason can with no more propriety be ascribed to the act of his own hand than to the deadly instrument that may have been used by him for the purpose,” and “was no more his act, in the sense of the law, than if he had been impelled by irresistible physical force.”
Great S. Life Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 148 Miss. 173, 114 So. 262, 263-64 (1927) (quoting Manhattan Life Ins. Co. v. Broughton, 109 U.S. 121, 132, 3 S. Ct. 99, 105, 27 L. Ed. 878 (1883)).
¶24. While this result is grounded in legal precedent, it may prove to be unsettling to some. However, it is not the duty of this Court to determine public policy. If the law as it now exists is in need of change, that task is for the Legislature.
A few thoughts about this case:
- Does this case forebode a shift in the standard for criminal responsibility?
- My hat is off to attorney Stacie Zorn for her work as GAL. She did exactly what a GAL in that role is supposed to do, and she accomplished a change in the law in the process.
- Operation of the “Slayer Statute” is a subject I have posted about here before.
- I had written yesterday’s post about mental illness week before last and scheduled it for publication yesterday. The MSSC’s Armstrong Estate decision came down in time for the resulting juxtaposition.
I don’t expect a shift in the standard for criminal responsibility, because the Court says that the standard for wilfulness that it’s applying is the same standard that already prevails in criminal cases. It was the chancellor’s attempt to introduce a lower “civil” standard that was in error.
This case will be about as useful to defense attorneys as a reversal of a criminal case for insufficient evidence of wilfulness would be: another set of facts evaluated under the existing standard and found wanting.