PR 02905.009 Delaware
A. PR 99-100 Felonious and Intentional Homicide
DATE: April 9, 1998
Under Delaware law, when the statute under which an individual is found guilty of manslaughter indicates that the individual "recklessly" caused the death of the numberholder, additional development is needed to determine if the manslaughter conviction constitutes a conviction for felonious and intentional homicide within the meaning of 20 CFR 404.305(b).
You have requested our opinion as to whether the conviction of Verna L. A~ of manslaughter for the death of her husband, Thomas A~, constituted a conviction for a felonious and intentional homicide within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (1997), thereby precluding the Agency from awarding widow's benefits to her as the surviving spouse. The record that you have provided indicates that Mrs. A~'s counsel has refused to provide information requested by the Great Lakes Program Service Center because the language of the statute under which the state of Delaware convicted Mrs. A~ indicates that she "recklessly" caused her husband's death. Her counsel, therefore, asserts that Mrs. A~ did not intentionally cause her husband's death. Our research supports a conclusion that Mrs. A~ forfeited her rights to widow's benefits.
According to the Agency's regulations, an individual who is "convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing [a] person's death" forfeits her right to receive benefits on that person's earnings record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) (1997). In Delaware, manslaughter is a class C felony and the statute provides that "[a] person is guilty of a manslaughter when . . . [t]he person recklessly causes the death of another person." Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 632(1) (1995). Because Mrs. A~ was convicted of "recklessly" causing her husband's death, the issue is limited to whether she "intentionally" caused his death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).
The POMS and case law interpreting the pertinent regulation permit the Agency to determine the issue of intent in cases involving felony manslaughter. The Agency's determination of intent depends on the laws of the state in which the individual is convicted. POMS GN 00304.065(B). When a state statute has a general manslaughter provision, as the Delaware statute has, the Agency cannot presume intent, but must develop the facts relative to the slaying. POMS GN 00304.065(B).
Under the POMS, "intent" is not simply the equivalent of specific intent, which is an element of the offense of first degree murder in Delaware. Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 636 (1995). Rather, under the POMS, intent is defined as "[a] wish or an expectancy that an act will have a certain result (regardless of the actual likelihood of such a result.)" POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1)(a). Alternatively, it is defined as "[t]he presence of will in the commission of a criminal act where the individual is fully aware of the nature and probable consequences of the act which is to be done." POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1)(b). A desire to kill is not necessary. POMS GN 00304.060(B)(1)(b). The requisite intent is not present if the slaying is committed under any of the following circumstances: accident; self-defense; insanity; or loss of reason due to drugs or alcohol to the extent that the individual was unaware of the nature and consequences of the act at the time it was committed. POMS GN 00304.065(A).
Because Mrs. A~, through counsel, has refused to provide information about the slaying, we have contacted the Newark News Journal (the newspaper where the A~ family lived) and Rosemary K. K~, the Deputy Attorney General who prosecuted Mrs. A~. The News Journal provided a May 2, 1993 article written by Ann M~ and the prosecutor provided a letter dated April 3, 1998, submitted herewith. Ms. M~ reported that according to the police, Mrs. A~ took a .38 caliber revolver from her bedroom and pointed it at her husband as he lay, asleep or unconscious but fully clothed, on the bed and shot him in the head. The prosecutor stated that the shooting was intentional.
Ms. M~ and the prosecutor further indicated that minutes before Mrs. A~ shot her husband, some acquaintances, as a joke, told her that Mr. A~ was a homosexual and that he was going to leave her for them. The prosecutor explained that this upset Mrs. A~ because she and her husband had accumulated significant financial assets over the many years of their marriage and she believed that her finances would be at risk should he leave.
According to the prosecutor, it is unequivocal that Thomas A~ had not provoked his wife, that she confessed to killing her husband when she called the police to report the death, and that she made a full recorded statement at the Newark, Delaware police station.
The prosecutor also confirmed that Thomas A~'s death was not the result of self-defense and that Mrs. A~ was not insane, inebriated, or under the influence of drugs. Therefore, the exceptions to intentional homicide found in POMS GN 00304.065(A) do not apply.
Although Mrs. A~ was initially charged with first degree murder, the state permitted her to plea bargain for a reduced charge of manslaughter (recklessly causing the death of Thomas A~). The state considered Mrs. A~ to be under extreme emotional distress because of her state of mind after the acquaintances misinformed her about her husband's sexuality and his intent to leave. The state sentenced Mrs. A~ to four years in prison. We believe that the additional facts provided by the Newark News Journal and the prosecutor provide an adequate basis for an Agency finding that Mrs. A~ intentionally caused her husband's death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b) and forfeited her right to widow's benefits.
We find further support for such a finding in case law. While the Third Circuit has not yet addressed the issue of whether a conviction for manslaughter disqualifies a spouse from receipt of survivor's benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b), the Sixth Circuit has addressed the issue in the case of Davis v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 867 F.2d 336 (6th Cir. 1989). The Delaware manslaughter statute is similar to the Kentucky statute, Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 507.040, at issue in D~. Both Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 231(c) (1995), and Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 501.020(3), use similar language in describing wanton and reckless behavior.
In D~, the state of Kentucky convicted the claimant of manslaughter under a statute which lacked specific intent as an element of the crime. The facts in D~ showed that the claimant shot her husband three times in the back. In arguing entitlement to widow's benefits, the claimant contended that she had not been found guilty of intentionally causing her husband's death within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b); that such finding had not been required to convict her of second-degree manslaughter under Kentucky law; and that, therefore, she was eligible for survivor's benefits on her deceased husband's record. D~, 867 F.2d at 339.
The Secretary countered by arguing that it was reasonable for the regulation to apply to homicide convictions, other than for crimes involving specific intent to kill, because the regulation does not, on its face, clearly limit its application to specific intent convictions. Id. The Sixth Circuit agreed and held that the claimant must forfeit widow's benefits because she was "convicted of a felony or an act in the nature of a felony of intentionally causing the [insured's] death" even though she was convicted under a statute which lacked specific intent as an element of the crime. Id. at 340. Although D~ is not Third Circuit precedent, the Sixth Circuit's rationale provides persuasive authority regarding the propriety of following POMS GN 00304.065B in this type of case because the Court relied on the POMS to develop the meaning of intent as used in 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b). The rationale in D~ persuades us that our interpretation of Mrs. A~'s intent would withstand judicial scrutiny.
Based on our analysis of Delaware law, the information provided by the Newark News Journal, the prosecutor, and the rationale of the D~ case which applied the POMS, it is clear that Mrs. A~ has forfeited her right to widow's benefits pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.305(b).