Seidman, J.c.c. (temporarily assigned).
[106 NJSuper Page 64] Claudius Lee Jackson died April 20, 1966, as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by his wife Stella Mae Jackson, plaintiff herein. Mrs. Jackson was subsequently indicted for manslaughter, tried
and convicted. She instituted this suit against The Prudential Insurance Company of America to obtain the proceeds of a policy of insurance issued under the Serviceman's Group Life Insurance Program, authorized by P.L. 89-214, 79 Stat. 880, 38 U.S.C.A. §§ 765-776, and underwritten by Prudential as the prime insurer. The amount of insurance afforded decedent was $10,000.
After obtaining an order to add as defendants plaintiff's infant son, Ronald Odell Jackson; decedent's mother, Ellen C. Beverly, and Delmas L. Jackson, decedent's natural father, Prudential filed a counterclaim and cross-claim in the form of interpleader to have the rights of the parties to the money determined. The insurance proceeds were paid into court to await the outcome of the litigation, and the complaint was dismissed as to Prudential.
Decedent did not designate any named person as beneficiary; instead, he requested that payment be made in the order of precedence set forth in P.L. 89-214, 38 U.S.C.A. § 770 (a). This section provides, in pertinent part, that in the absence of a designated beneficiary, payment shall be made to the survivor or survivors in the following order: to the widow or widower; if none, to the child or children of the insured and descendants of deceased children, and if no surviving spouse or children or descendants of deceased children, to the parents of the insured or the survivor of them.
There is a tangled web of opposing claims. Mrs. Jackson demands the proceeds as decedent's widow. The others are united only in their contention that the homicide precludes her recovery. Ronald Odell Jackson, represented by a guardian ad litem, asserts that he is next in line. The position of Mrs. Beverly is that she is the sole eligible party. She charges that Ronald is illegitimate, the decedent having been stationed with the armed forces in Greece for more than 11 months prior to the birth of the child. She also asserts the illegitimacy of the decedent, contending that she and Delmas L. Jackson had never been married. The latter seeks one half of the proceeds on the ground that the decedent was his natural
son. The crux of the controversy is, of course, whether Mrs. Jackson, having caused the death of her husband, is debarred. That issue necessarily must be resolved first.
With respect to these proceedings, the fact that the plaintiff was convicted of manslaughter is not dispositive of the issue. It is true that generally, in a civil proceeding, "evidence is admissible of a final judgment against a party adjudging him guilty of an indictable offense in New Jersey * * * as against that party to prove any fact essential to sustain the judgment." (Evidence Rule 63 (20); emphasis supplied). But Mrs. Jackson denied neither the homicide nor the conviction; and none of the parties sought to invoke the rule for any other purpose. Consequently, a plenary trial was had before the court, sitting without a jury, to determine whether the circumstances of the homicide were such as to prevent Mrs. Jackson from claiming the insurance proceeds.
Two versions of the homicide were developed at the trial. One was related by Mrs. Jackson; the other, testified to by Captain Silvio J. Donatelli of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's office, consisted of statements allegedly made to him by Mrs. Jackson the night of the incident. At that time she and her husband, who was still in military service, lived in an apartment in New Brunswick. Mrs. Jackson testified that her husband had visited a friend earlier in the evening and had returned home about 11 P.M. While he was in the bathroom, she said, she removed a pistol from under the mattress in the bedroom and began playing with it, in the course of which she cocked the gun. She stated that she then went into the bathroom to get her husband to uncock the weapon. He warned her not to play with the pistol because it had a hair trigger. She walked forward with the gun in her right hand, placed her arms around her husband, and hugged him. At that moment, according to Mrs. Jackson, she heard her child cry out in an adjoining room. Startled, she jumped back; as she did so, the pistol went off and her husband was mortally wounded. Further interrogation by counsel elicited
from Mrs. Jackson that she had drunk about half a pint of whiskey that night. In response to an inquiry by the court, she said she did not know why she had taken the gun from under the mattress.
Captain Donatelli testified that he began his interrogation of Mrs. Jackson, after advising her of her rights, at 12:55 A.M. following the shooting, and completed it about 3:40 A.M. Her recital of what had occurred was substantially as follows: During the afternoon she had looked after the children of Mr. and Mrs. Fisher, who lived nearby. Mrs. Fisher picked up the children at the Jackson apartment about 5:30 P.M., but brought them back later while she and her husband went shopping. The children were taken home about 6:25 P.M. Mrs. Jackson and her husband went to a store to buy a half-pint of Old Crow and a large bottle of a soft drink, and they had a couple of drinks upon returning home.
At about 8:40 P.M. Mrs. Fisher telephoned and said that her husband wanted to borrow some "brass" -- apparently referring to buttons on a military uniform. Decedent left for the Fisher home, and Mrs. Jackson remained home watching television. She finished the half-pint of Old Crow and also drank two bottles of ale. Later on she called the Fishers to inquire when her husband intended to come home. After he returned, as both lay on the bed, Mrs. Jackson said to him, "Claudius, tell me the truth, what took you so long?" He responded, "Nothing; I was just yacking," and then went into the bathroom. Mrs. Jackson took the gun from under the mattress, walked into the bathroom, pointed the gun at her husband, and said, "Tell me the truth or I'll shoot you." He laughed and she then said, "Don't laugh or I'll shoot you". He replied, "Stella, don't wave that gun," and then jumped up from the commode. Although Mrs. Jackson claims she heard no noise, she saw her husband holding his chest. He walked toward the front door and collapsed.
Although, in rebuttal, Mrs. Jackson did not deny the quotations attributed to her by Captain Donatelli, she stated she could not recall anything she had said to the detective
during the questioning. She insisted that she had not intended to harm her husband.
Depending upon what is proven, a homicide may constitute the crime of murder, either first or second degree, or manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary. N.J.S.A. 2 A:113-1, 2 A:113-2, 2 A:113-5. But it may also be the result of misadventure, or in defense, or to prevent certain felonies, in which case the slayer is guiltless. N.J.S.A. 2 A:113-6. No matter which version of the occurrence in question is accepted, it is clear that the homicide was not in self-defense, nor was it to prevent a felony. Plaintiff contends that the shooting was accidental and without any intention of hurt; for this reason, the death being through misfortune or misadventure, she claims she ought not to be barred from receiving the insurance proceeds. She urges, in addition, that even if the homicide constituted manslaughter, she is still entitled to the money. Defendants do not concede that the mishap resulted from accident. Their position is that Mrs. Jackson intentionally killed her husband, and that she is thereby barred from the proceeds.
It is the law of this State that a beneficiary who murders an insured is precluded from recovering the proceeds of a policy of insurance on the life of the victim. Swavely v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 10 N.J. Misc. 1, 157 A. 394 (Sup. Ct. 1931); Merrity v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 110 N.J.L. 414 (E. & A. 1933); Turner v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 60 N.J. Super. 175 (Ch. Div. 1960). This is so because to permit a murderer to retain property acquired by his crime is contrary to public policy and violates the common law precept that no one shall be allowed to profit by his own wrong. Neiman v. Hurff, 11 N.J. 55 (1952); In re Estate of Kalfus, 81 N.J. Super. 435 (Ch. Div. 1963); Estate of Wolyniec v. Moe, 94 N.J. Super. 43 (Ch. Div. 1967).
At the other end of the spectrum is accidental homicide, in which case the rule appears to be that the slayer can acquire the property of the ...