Sunday, March 2, 2014
Carla Spivack (Oklahoma City University School of Law) recently published an article entitled, Killers Shouldn’t Inherit from Their Victims—Or Should They?, 48 Ga. L. Rev. 145 (Fall 2013). Provided below is the beginning of her article:
Almost all states have laws, called “Slayer Rules,” barring killers from inheriting from their victims. At first glance, the idea behind these statutes seems reasonable, indeed, morally obvious: killers should not profit from their crimes. This Article, however, suggests reasons why this age-old truism may not necessarily be true. Where murder and inheritance overlap, we often find family. When family members kill one another, the equities are often cloudy. The sociopathic child who kills a grandparent to hasten an inheritance is an anomaly. In reality, murders within a family are usually a product of that family's harmful, often violent, dynamics, from which, because of the failures of state and society, a family member sometimes can find no escape except murder. Most women who kill their husbands or partners do so to protect themselves or their children from violence. Most children who kill a parent act to stop severe and prolonged abuse by that parent; most other parricides are acutely mentally ill. Most mothers who kill their children suffer from postpartum psychosis, a severe mental illness with symptoms including visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions. In many of these cases, social, political, economic, and cultural factors have combined to block the suffering relative's escape, sometimes leaving murder as the only way out.
Once the tragedy has played out, resulting in a murder, a corpse, and a defendant, the legal system often fails to recognize or address the defendant's plight: it often bars effective defenses at trial, extorts pleas that stand in as guilty verdicts without reliably reflecting guilt, and offers defendants inadequate representation. Even defendants who bypass these obstacles and are found not guilty at a criminal trial may still fall within the reach of the Slayer Rules due to the lower standard of proof and different definition of intent in civil proceedings. Depriving such defendants of the decedent's estate compounds their vulnerability by depriving them of resources. In this context, it is far from clear that barring such killers from inheriting is morally or legally justified, or sound public policy. I explain here why it is not, and propose revisions to the Slayer Rules to address this problem.