Friday, July 19, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Murder doesn't pay

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
July 19, 2013

Abraham Lincoln once bemoaned the guy who killed his parents and then wanted the court to take mercy on him because he was an orphan. The story may be apocryphal, but it is not far-fetched.

In February, Colin Abbott pleaded no contest to killing his father and stepmother whose charred remains were found on their property in Butler County in July 2011. Abbott killed his parents to cash-in on his father’s $4 million estate.

His plea to third degree murder resulted in a sentence of 35 to 80 years in prison. Abbott then filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea citing concerns that he was under "emotional distress" at sentencing and did not have enough time to consider the decision.

In April, a Butler County judge rejected Abbott’s motion finding that he failed to prove a “manifest injustice” existed allowing the withdraw of a plea after sentencing. Abbott is appealing the court’s decision and wants the civil action seeking to divest his interest in his father’s estate pursuant to the Slayer’s Act held in abeyance pending his appeal.

The Pennsylvania Slayer’s Act provides that “[n]o slayer shall in anyway acquire any property or receive any benefit as the result of the death of the decedent[.]” The Act defines a “slayer” as “any person who participates, either as principal or as an accessory before the fact, in the wilful and unlawful killing of any other person.

A conviction does not automatically divest a killer from benefiting by her evil deed. The Slayer’s Act is a civil proceeding wherein a party must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the beneficiary of a will or insurance proceeds intentionally caused the decedent’s death.

Another interesting interpretation of the Slayer’s Act recently played out in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Dorleen Burkland was accused of murdering her husband, Michael Burkland. Their son Gabriel Burkland, alleged that he was entitled to the proceeds of a life insurance policy that named Dorleen as beneficiary.

Gabriel told the court that after consulting with an attorney, he promised his mother that he would use the proceeds of the life insurance policy to hire an attorney to defend her on the murder charge. Michael’s brother successfully used the Slayer’s Act to suspend the payout until after the criminal trial. Dorleen was subsequently convicted of first degree murder.

A classic example of a Slayer’s Act case ended in Florida last summer. Narcy Novack and her brother murdered her husband Ben, the heir to the Fontainebleau Hotel fortune, and Ben’s mother Bernice to collect the Novack’s assets worth more than $10 million.

Narcy was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison. Her daughter, the stepdaughter of Ben Novack, collected all the assets.

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