Appeal from decree of Orphans' Court of Montgomery County, No. 59,813, in re estate of Max Kravitz, deceased.
Desmond J. McTighe, with him Philip D. Weiss, and Duffy, McTighe & McElhone, for appellant.
Morris Passon, with him Leon H. Fox, for appellee.
Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Cohen. Mr. Justice Musmanno joins in this dissenting opinion.
May a convicted slayer relitigate in the Orphans' Court the issue of murder and the question of his guilt?
Ethel Kravitz, the appellant, was indicted for the murder of her husband, Max Kravitz, in their home in Wynnewood, on July 4, 1958. She pleaded not guilty; she was found guilty of murder in the second degree by a jury on December 12, 1958, and on July 17, 1959, she was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence in the State Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania. On June 28, 1960, this Court in Commonwealth v. Kravitz, 400 Pa. 198, 161 A.2d 861, affirmed the judgment and sentence.
Max Kravitz left surviving him, his widow Ethel Kravitz, a brother Harry Kravitz, and a sister Esther Passon. Kravitz left a will in which he bequeathed his residuary estate to his wife if she survived him by ninety days. Having so survived him, she presented her claim to her husband's residuary estate at the audit of his executor's account. Her claim was disallowed and dismissed in a learned Opinion by President Judge Taxis.
Ethel Kravitz did not testify in the criminal case in which she was convicted of murdering her husband. However, in the present case she offered (a) to take the witness stand in support of her claim, and (b) to testify that she was innocent of the murder of her husband, and (c) to support her claim of innocence by the testimony of additional witnesses. The auditing Judge (1) refused to permit the question of her guilt or innocence to be relitigated, and (2) held that the finding of the jury and the sentence of the Court in the above mentioned case of Commonwealth v. Kravitz was conclusive of her guilt, and (3) that under the Slayer's Act of August 5, 1941,*fn1 she was not entitled to any part of her husband's estate which had been bequeathed to her in his will.
The exact questions presented by this appeal have never been specifically decided in Pennsylvania. Before
analyzing the language of the pertinent Act of August 5, 1941, we shall first discuss prior cases and the reasons for the enactment of the 1941 Act.
In Carpenter's Appeal, 170 Pa. 203, 32 A. 637, a son had murdered his father for the purpose of securing his estate. Nevertheless, the Court allowed the son to inherit his father's estate on the ground that the crime did not destroy his right to inherit under the then existing Intestate Act. Thereafter, the Legislature passed the Intestate Act of June 7, 1917,*fn2 which, in § 23, prohibited a person "who shall be finally adjudged guilty of murder" from inheriting (under certain circumstances) any part of the estate of the person killed. This Act was interpreted in Tarlo's Estate,*fn3 315 Pa. 321, 172 A. 139, to mean that where a father murdered his wife and daughter and then took his own life, his heirs could inherit through him his daughter's estate because the father had not been "finally adjudged guilty of murder." As the result of the decision in Tarlo's Estate, the Legislature repealed § 23 of the Intestate Act of 1917, and enacted the Slayer's Act of August 5, 1941.
The pertinent provisions of the Act of 1941 are as follows: Section 2. "No slayer shall in any way acquire any property or receive any benefit as the result of the death of the decedent, but such property shall pass as provided in the sections following."
Section 14. "The record of his conviction of having participated in the wilful and unlawful killing of the decedent shall be admissible in evidence against a claimant of property in any civil action arising under this act."
Section 15. "This act shall not be considered penal in nature, but shall be construed broadly in order to Page 323} effect the policy of this State that no person shall be allowed to ...