Could a 59-year-old Norwalk woman convicted of killing her husband still inherit his $1.2 million estate? That's up to a probate judge and his interpretation of Connecticut's "slayer statute."
Mary Ann Langley was charged with murder in December 2006; authorities said she threw gasoline on her husband and then lit a match inside their home. Her supposed motive was his infidelity.
But her lawyer, Stephan Seeger, maintains that the fire started accidentally and that James Langley was "delusional" due to his unregulated diabetes when he claimed that his wife set him afire. Still, a jury convicted Mary Ann Langley last month of first-degree manslaughter.
Forty-two states have slayer statutes, which bar people from inheriting money or property from someone they are convicted of murdering. However, in Connecticut, if there is no murder conviction, inheritance decisions are to be made under common law.
"In this case, the question becomes, what about if an individual is convicted of manslaughter? The wording seems confused at best," Seeger said.
"Manslaughter alone does not cut off benefits unless you committed the crime for financial gain," Seeger continued. "There was no financial motive in this case."
Seeger said a 1953 Connecticut decision, Bird v. Plunkett, determined that a person convicted of manslaughter could inherit under the statute unless it was proved he or she killed for financial reasons.
However, according to Kevin Black, of Wilton's Bayer & Black, this case is an issue of first impression because no decisions have been rendered since the "slayer statute" was twice revised, once in 1965 to include the common law provision, and again in 1983 to disqualify people from inheriting their deceased spouses' life insurance and annuities.
Black said that means that Mary Ann Langley is only eligible for general assets of her husband's estate and not his $300,000 life insurance policy.
Wrongful Death Suit?
Black was retained by the Langleys' two sons after their father's will went to probate court. Black said the two sons were not named in the will and are merely heirs-at-law. They can claim an inheritance only if the will is not probated for some reason. The attorney said the sons have no basis to contest the will.
James Langley named his wife as the primary recipient of his $1.2 million estate, which includes two homes, a contractor's lot, and other contracting equipment. James Langley's brother, Willie Langley, is executor of the estate. He, his other brother, Donnie Langley, and their lawyer Allen Williams III, are still deciding whether to contest the will in probate court or to file a civil wrongful death lawsuit.
"I don't think it is right. If you kill someone, why should you profit?" said Willie Langley. "I think if you pour gasoline on someone, you meant to kill them anyway, but [the prosecution] couldn't prove that."
The older Langley brothers said they would prefer that the majority of the estate go to the couple's two sons. Seeger said he hopes to meet with Williams in the next week or so and try to work out "the maximum outcome for all the parties involved."
Black agreed with that approach. "Hopefully there will be some negotiations to resolve this rather than prolonging the agony and pain to avoid contentiousness going forward," he said.
Getting the case to go away may be easier said than done, however. Seeger has filed a motion in the wake of Mary Ann Langley's conviction, asking the judge to either hold a new trial or reverse the conviction.
One issue Seeger is particularly upset about is the court's use of the excited utterance hearsay exception, which allowed testimony as to comments James Langley made to his niece and nephew just after the fire. "I don't know, I woke up and I was on fire," Langley reportedly told them. But then he later reportedly 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."
James Langley died 12 days after the fire. For now, his widow is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 19.