February 8, 2008

Can insane killer inherit mother's estate?

Under most circumstances, killing your mother is a sure-fire way to lose out on the inheritance. But what if you were legally insane at the time of the killing?

That's the issue in a case that may set legal precedent in Washington.

Joshua Hoge, a 37-year-old man with schizophrenia, has been locked up on the forensic unit at Western State Hospital (where I happened to do my forensic postdoctoral fellowship) since being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the stabbing death of his mother and half-brother in 1999. Hoge was experiencing a so-called Capgras delusion at the time, believing identical-looking impostors had replaced his family members.

We're not talking chump change.

After the death of Hoge's mother, her family won $800,000 because two days before the killings a public health clinic had refused to give Hoge his antipsychotic medication. The family wants the money to go to the deceased woman's third son, who is also mentally ill and in need of lifelong care.

In some U.S. states, the question of whether someone found not guilty by reason of insanity can inherit from the estate of his or her victim has been decided by case law. Not so in Washington.

The legal issue here is whether the killings were "willful" and "unlawful," which would preclude Hoge from getting the money under Washington's "Slayer Statute." Hoge's attorney is arguing that the killings were not "unlawful" because Hoge was found not guilty. In a preliminary ruling, an appellate court held that while Hoge's mental illness absolved him of criminal responsibility, the killing was still unlawful. Whether the killing was "willful" remains to be decided.

The case has been remanded to the trial court in King County for a determination of "the degree to which Hoge's delusion prevented him from forming the intent to kill." A court date has not been set.

The opinion in Estate Of Pamela L. Kissinger v. Joshua Hoge is here. The Seattle Times has news coverage.

Hat tip: Andrew Scarpetta