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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Serenity In Manslaughter?: Connecticut Court's Slayer Statute Ruling Contingent Upon Excited Utterance Ruling

A fascinating Connecticut case could lead to an interesting opinion about the scope of Connecticut's "slayer statute," but only if a wife's appeal of a seemingly erroneous evidentiary ruling is unsuccessful.

Mary Ann Langley was charged with murdering her husband by throwing gasoline on him and lighting a match inside their home; her supposed motive was his infidelity.  Langley's attorney claimed, however, that the fire started accidentally and that the husband was “delusional” due to his unregulated diabetes when he claimed that his wife set him afire.  And the jury apparently split the difference, finding Langley guilty last month of first-degree manslaughter.

For trusts and estates buffs, this raises the issue of whether Langley can inherit money and/or property from her deceased husband.  And, like 41 other states, Connecticut has a "slayer statute," which bars people from inheriting money or property from someone they are convicted of killing.  But what type of conviction is sufficient?  Under Connecticut's statute, a murder conviction is sufficient, but the statute does not explicitly mention manslaughter convictions, and an article on the case indicates that the issue of whether a manslaughter conviction triggers Connecticut's statute is an issue of first impression.

Certainly, this is an intriguing issue, but it's also one I don't think that a court will have to address, at least if an article about the case is accurate.  According to that article, Langley has appealed her manslaughter conviction, with her attorney, Stephan Seeger being "particularly upset about [about] the court’s use of the excited utterance hearsay exception, which allowed testimony as to comments [the husband] made to his niece and nephew just after the fire," but before he died from complications from the fire 12 days later.  Apparently, the husband first said, "I don’t know, I woke up and I was on fire," but then later said, "I know what happened; your aunt did this to me."  "That evidence was very damaging to our case," said Seeger. "People don’t see real things in their sleep. Allowing that evidence in completely misses the mark of the excited utterance exception."

So, why do I think that this appeal will be successful?  Well, like any lay witness at trial, a hearsay declarant must have personal knowledge of an event before his statements can be received in court.  And here, it clearly appears that the husband was sleeping when he was doused with gasoline and merely guessed that his wife was the perpetrator. 

Indeed, the facts of this case are the converse of the classic case of Shepard v. United States, 290 U.S. 96 (1933), where a wife told a nurse that her doctor-husband poisoned her because he had fallen in love with another woman.  After the Court found that the wife's statements did not qualify as a dying declaration, it noted in dicta that even if it did so qualify, it likely would have failed the personal knowledge test.  According to the Court, "[t]o let the declaration in, the inference must be permissible that there was knowledge or the opportunity for knowledge as to the acts that are declared."  It seemed apparent in Shepard that the wife was merely guessing that her husband poisoned her, and it seems clear to me that the husband merely guessed that his wife set him on fire.  I would thus expect Langley's manslaughter conviction to be reversed.

-CM 

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