Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
Although the term "killer" is not defined, Arizona's slayer statute equates the "killer" with one who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 14-2803(A) (2005). Similarly, subsection (F) refers to the person as one who is criminally accountable for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 14-2803(F) (2005).
Adolfo F. Suarez ("Decedent") was shot to death in his home on November 29, 2004. His death was ruled a homicide. His widow, Luz Ballesteros-Suarez ("Mrs. Suarez"), was a suspect in the murder and the beneficiary under his two life insurance policies. After she requested the life insurance proceeds, American Family Insurance Company and Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance Company filed separate interpleader actions. Both noted that Decedent's mother, Dora Castro, had been the previously named beneficiary, and requested the superior court to determine who should receive the insurance proceeds. Mrs. Suarez answered both actions and denied any involvement in her husband's death. She also filed unsuccessful motions for summary judgment to recover the proceeds. The insurance companies were subsequently dismissed after they deposited the insurance proceeds with the clerk of the court, the cases were consolidated, and Cruz Antonia Suarez Castro ("Ms. Castro"), the Decedent's sister and the personal representative of her mother's estate, was substituted for her mother. During the ensuing discovery, Mrs. Suarez unsuccessfully attempted to prevent her deposition from being taken and to preclude any questions about her knowledge of or involvement in her husband's death based on her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Mrs. Suarez also filed a motion for partial summary judgment and argued that she was entitled to one-half of the life insurance proceeds because the premiums had been paid from a community account. Ms. Castro responded and affirmatively argued that Decedent did not sign the American Family change of beneficiary form. She also petitioned the court to find that Mrs. Suarez was criminally accountable for the felonious and intentional killing of Decedent. The court subsequently found that the American Family change of beneficiary form was a forgery and, as a result, it had no legal effect. Consequently, Decedent's mother's estate was still the beneficiary of the American Family policy. The court also found that Fidelity's change of beneficiary form had been properly executed and Mrs. Suarez was the beneficiary. The court then examined the facts against the slayer statute and found that: “[Mrs. Suarez's] invocation of her privilege against self-incrimination gives rise to an inference that she was involved in and is responsible in whole or in part for the murder of Adolfo Suarez as a matter of fact.” Mrs. Suarez filed a motion for new trial. She challenged the findings and verdict, and argued that she was entitled to her community property share of the life insurance proceeds. Ms. Castro, in response, argued that the issue was waived because Mrs. Suarez had failed to raise it in the joint pretrial statement. The motion for new trial was denied. The court found that the statute allowed it to presume that Mrs. Suarez predeceased her husband and, as a result, she did not have any community property interest in the life insurance proceeds.
Does Mrs. Suarez need to be the killer for the slayer statute to apply?
Here, Mrs. Suarez allegedly committed first-degree murder. A person commits first-degree murder if "[i]ntending or knowing that the person's conduct will cause death, the person causes the death of another person.” The Arizona criminal code further provides that "[a] person is criminally accountable for the conduct of another if . . . the person is an accomplice of such other person in the commission of an offense." An accomplice is defined as one who with intent to promote or facilitate the commission of an offense: (1) solicits or commands someone to commit the offense; (2) aids another in planning or committing an offense; or (3) provides an opportunity or means for another to commit the offense. An accomplice can be found guilty of homicide. Thus, a person who solicits or commands another to cause someone's death could be found guilty of first-degree murder, or at a minimum, be held criminally accountable for such intentional killing. Based on the facts and the guidance provided by the criminal code, the trial court did not err in finding by a preponderance of the evidence that Mrs. Suarez could be held criminally accountable for the Decedent's felonious and intentional death because either she shot him or had him shot by another to attempt to secure the life insurance proceeds.