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Justice for the Dead: Cold Cases, Curious Laws, and the Living Dead

Many times throughout history, the American legal system has allowed cases where penalties were imposed on individuals for murder where no act of homicide was actually carried out by the accused. While this typically has to do with those who are wrongly accused of a crime, there are some instances that fall outside what might be deemed “ordinary” circumstances, too.

One controversial incident in recent years involved four teenagers from Elkhart, a town north of Indianapolis, Indiana, who while attempting to burglarize a home they thought was empty were fired on by a homeowner sleeping upstairs. One of the four teens was shot and killed during the incident, and following the arrest and trial of the remaining three, each were convicted of murder and sentenced to five-decades at a regional correctional facility.

“They may not have pulled the trigger,” IndyStar.com reported of the incident. “But, as far as the law is concerned, the rash decision to try to score some cash turned them into murderers.”

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than a group of individuals being sentenced to murder despite having never committed an act of homicide would be when a dead person is accused of the crime instead.

Boston Globe reports that “a Baltimore Police detective investigating the shooting death of a popular 19-year-old high school student wrote to top homicide commanders that she’d cracked the case.”

The detective, Jill Beauregard-Navarro, had an unusual story to tell. The victim, Victorious Swift, was purportedly the target of an attempted robbery by 44-year-old Charles Frazier, who was attacked by the teenager (Swift, it turns out, was a boxer). In a panic, Frazier shot Swift, and later told others in the community about what he had done.

Image by Adam Gerard via Flickr.

It would otherwise seem like a cold case closed, if not for one outstanding detail: Frazier, the accused, was also dead. His body, Boston Globe reports, was found within two months of Swift’s killing, though not before he could be charged with the crime. The result had been a circumstance known in law enforcement as “closed by exception,” which entails reasons beyond the control of law enforcement preventing an arrest, despite there being ample evidence for charges and prosecution of a suspect. Hence, the Globe ran the story with the curious headline, “‘Bodies on bodies:’ Baltimore police increasingly accusing the dead of murder.”

We aren’t talking about zombies here, of course. Still, such circumstances raise interesting questions about the rights of the deceased, and what can be done when a deceased individual is a suspect in a crime they committed while living. In many states, if an individual has passed away law enforcement can release information about them, although certain states–Texas comes to mind here–may continue to withhold information from the public. Often in cases where it is legal to release such information, there are authorization processes one must go through in order to obtain the deceased person’s data.

Things get stranger still when the deceased individual is the one attempting to obtain recognition for their rights. Again, while this may sound like the kind of thing only a zombie could do, another interesting legal circumstance arose a number of years ago in Ohio that involved such a query.

In Ohio, a law known as the Presumed Decedents’ Law allows for the “presumption of the death of a person” if the individual in question has 1) disappeared and hasn’t been heard from for five years or more, 2) if they disappeared within five years, but were “exposed to a specific peril of death”; or 3) if the individual was declared dead under the “Federal Missing Persons Act,” as a result of having served in the armed forces.

This law became problematic for Donald Eugene Miller Jr., who after meeting the aforementioned criteria was declared legally dead in 1994. Then, a number of years later when he appeared in court attempting to prove that he was, in fact, still alive, the judge in question (the same judge, incidentally, who presided over the previous determination of his death) now sat before Miller, explaining that despite what appeared to be reasonable evidence of his existence after all these years, the law still maintained that he was, in fact, dead.

A similar incident was reported more recently out of Romania, where 63-year-old Constantin Reliu was pronounced deceased by a court of law, after having left his wife a number of years ago upon discovering she had been unfaithful. Having broken all ties with the deceitful spouse, she eventually reported him missing, and he was presumed dead after a number of years.

Reliu appears before the Romanian court to plead his case.

During this time, Reliu had been working in Turkey, but was eventually deported. Upon returning to Romania, he learned of his “death,” and despite appealing to judges, found similar difficulty to that of Donald Miller in convincing judges of his survival. The appeal period for contesting the declaration had passed, judges told Reliu, who was denied the appeal and therefore must apparently remain “legally deceased.”

In such circumstances, one might expect that common sense would prevail over the law, but it’s pretty obvious this isn’t always the case. In other words, sometimes it’s hard to find justice for the dead… even while they’re still among the living.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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