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Friday, January 25, 2002

When an Alleged Murderer Dies in a Plane Crash -- A Wrongful-Death Conundrum

Stephen P. Dresch

Delmarie Walker Dies in Everglades Plane Crash

When ValuJet Flight 592, en route from Miami to Atlanta, crashed in the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996, 109 people died. Among them was 38-year-old Delmarie Walker, mother of two teen-aged children and wife of a disabled Pennsylvania state policeman.

As efforts to recover the bodies continued, Delmarie Walker’s 14-year-old son Russell, from Erie, Pennsylvania, waited at an airport hotel in Miami. “It's real important to me maybe to see her, see some of her clothes,” Russell Walker was quoted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on May 15. However, searchers failed to recover Delmarie’s body; a memorial service was held for her at a cemetery in Erie.

At a November 1996 National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the cause of the crash, Walker’s 18-year old daughter Tiffany, a student at Clark Atlanta University, told the Journal Constitution’s Mike Williams: “Being here has just added more burden to my grief. From the top level down, it was incompetence. They are murderers. They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

At the time of her death Walker was employed as a waitress in Atlanta. However, prior to her marriage to Gerald Walker, Jr., she had completed three years at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania. Because, relatives told the Journal Constitution, “she wanted more from life than being a waitress,” she had gone to Miami for a job interview, placing her on the ill-fated ValuJet flight.

Even from these sparse facts it can be presumed that ValuJet, its maintenance contractor and their insurers confronted a significant prospective liability as a result of Walker’s allegedly wrongful death. Not surprisingly, Walker’s estate sued.

Police Conclude That Walker Murdered Catherine Holmes

In February 1997, well before the ValuJet crash suits could be settled or go to trail, the College Park, Georgia, police announced that they were closing their investigation into the March 25, 1996, murder of 48-year-old Catherine Holmes. “Even though we can't charge [Delmarie Walker], we feel the evidence shows she was the suspect who committed this crime,” the lead investigator told the Journal Constitution.

Holmes had choked to death on some object, possibly a sock, which had been forced into her throat. In the course of an apparent struggle she had received more than twenty stab wounds. Hogtied with a pillowcase covering her head, Holmes died cluching tufts of her assailant’s hair.

Catherine Holmes and Delmarie Walker had been close friends for several years. When police interviewed Walker two days after Holmes’ murder, patches of hair were missing from Walker’s scalp, and cuts were observed on her hands and forearms. Walker agreed to be fingerprinted and to give the police samples of her hair, but she refused to give blood for a DNA comparison with blood spatters found in Holmes’ apartment. At the time investigators did not believe that they had sufficient evidence to obtain a court order for a blood sample.

Then Walker died in the ValuJet crash in the Everglades. Eight months later (after delays attributed to the Olympic bombing) the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab confirmed that Walker’s hair matched the hair found in Holmes’ grasp and that Walker’s fingerprints were found in Holmes’ apartment. Evidence that Holmes had previously written checks to Walker and that Holmes was known to have received $1,800 from her mother shortly before her death was apparently sufficient to convince police that Walker had murdered Holmes in a dispute over money.

However, because Walker’s body was never recovered from the Everglades, it was not possible to verify a match between Walker’s DNA and the blood spatter at the murder scene. Thus, the evidence on which the police based their conclusion that Walker was Holmes’ murderer and their consequent decision to close the investigation was largely circumstantial and arguably less than conclusive.

These facts might lead an inveterate conspiracy theorist to bizarre speculations: Might the ValuJet crash actually have been an act of revenge directed at Walker for her murder of Holmes? Could the true murderer have “framed” Walker, and perhaps even have engineered the crash to prevent Walker from establishing her innocence and possibly exposing the murderer? Since her remains were never found, was Walker even on the fated flight? Might Walker have engineered the crash to cover her escape from justice?

More interesting, however, is the question of the relevance of the police conclusion that Walker had murdered Holmes for the Walker estate’s wrongful-death lawsuit, and specifically for the economic and noneconomic damages claimed in that suit.

Holmes’ Murder, Walker’s Death and the Walker Estate’s Wrongful-Death Suit

Clearly, if Walker had not been killed in the ValuJet crash, her conviction for Holmes’ murder would have significantly affected her future prospects and hence the claims of her estate’s wrongful-death suit. Instead of continuing life as a waitress in Atlanta or, more speculatively, of pursuing a more lucrative career in Miami, Walker would have faced, if not the death penalty, at least a long period of incarceration, possibly for life. While Walker’s husband and children had remained in Pennsylvania when she had decamped to Atlanta several years earlier, her conviction of murder would have rendered moot any question of loss of consortium, companionship, maternal care, etc.

In fact, considering the financial burden of Walker’s defense against the charge of Holmes’ murder and the psychological trauma which Walker’s prosecution and conviction would have inflicted on her husband, children, mother, mother-in-law and other relatives, one might well conclude that Walker’s survivors derived a net benefit from her untimely death in the Everglades.

But, how could the conclusion of the College Park police, that Walker had murdered Holmes, be used in the defense of ValuJet and its codefendants against the Walker estate’s wrongful death suit? At the time of her death Walker had not even been charged with Holmes’ death, much less convicted.

For a jury in the Walker estate’s wrongful-death suit the standard of proof would be the civil standard, “a preponderance of the evidence.” In contrast, had Walker been prosecuted for the murder of Holmes, the jury’s standard of proof would have been the criminal standard, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” reached subject to “the presumption of innocence.”

Assume that the jury would have found the ValuJet defendants liable for the death of Walker. How could the ValuJet defense frame for the jury, and how might the court ultimately charge the jury concerning, the consequences for the Walker estate’s damages claim of the postmortem police conclusion that Walker had murdered Holmes?

Because a damages claim is a statistical expectation, it can be argued that the jury should condition the expectation of damages on its assessment of the probabilities of findings of guilt or innocence in a hypothetical criminal trial of Walker for the murder of Holmes. Thus, the jury would determine (a) the probability pg that a criminal jury would have found Walker guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of Holmes’ murder (had there been a trial), (b) damages Dg attributable to Walker’s death on the assumption that she would have been found guilty of Holmes’ muder, and (c) damages Dng attributable to Walker’s death on the assumption that she would have been found not guilty of Holmes’ murder. Then, having found the ValuJet defendants to be liable for Walker’s death, the jury would award damages equal to A1 = pgDg + (1-pg)Dng.

If it believed that it could convince the civil jury that a hypothetical criminal jury would be more likely to find Walker guilty than not guilty, then the ValuJet defense might attempt to exploit the civil jury’s lower prependerance-of-the-evidence standard and force the jury to assume either criminal guilt or innocence in the determination of the damages award. Because a probability greater than 0.5 represents a preponderance of the evidence, if the civil jury’s estimate of the probability of criminal guilt, pg, were greater than 0.5, then it would award damages of A2 = Dg. Conversely, if pg were less than or equal to 0.5, then the jury would award damages of A2 = Dng. If pg > (1- pg), i.e., if pg > 0.5, then this approach will produce a damages award which is lower than the first, probabalistic, award.

To this the estate’s (plaintiff’s) attorneys might counter that the civil jury’s assessment of the probability that a criminal jury would have found Walker guilty beyond a reasonable doubt should itself conform to the more stringent beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. If it were stipulated that guilt “beyond a reasonable” meant a probability of guilt greater than 0.95 (a commonly accepted standard of statistical significance), then the plaintiff would argue that the jury should assume guilt and award damages of A3 = Dg only if it found pg ³ 0.95 and that it should assume innocence and award damages of A3 = Dng if pg < 0.95.

Because the issue of a possible criminal conviction would be raised by a civil defendant only if this would be likely to reduce damages, it can be assumed that Dng is significantly greater than Dg. Also, because the civil defendant’s claims could be taken seriously only if there were significant evidence of criminal guilt, it can be assumed that pg is greater than 0.5. Thus, in general it can be anticipated that A2 [= Dg] < A1 [= pgDg + (1-pg)Dng] < A3 [= Dng].

Because it appears that no court has ever confronted this issue, it is unclear which of the three approaches a court would embrace on first impression. The first is most consistent with the expectational interpretation of civil damages. The second and third take polar approaches to the distinction between civil and criminal standards of proof.

However, it is quite conceivable that the court would sidestep the issue entirely. Because Delmarie Walker died before she could be criminally charged and tried, all three approaches to the determination of damages require that the evidence of criminal guilt be developed by the ValuJet defense in the course of the civil damages trial. Effectively, this requires that a criminal trial be embedded within the civil trial, with the attorneys for the civil defendant (ValuJet) acting as the criminal prosecution and the attorneys for the civil plaintiff (the estate) acting as the criminal defense.

It is likely that the civil court would rule this embedded conduct of a criminal trial to be impermissible on constitutional grounds. Trial in absentia is generally prohibited on Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, and the only limited exceptions relate to the voluntary absence of the defendant; see, e.g., Smith v. Mann, 73 F.3d 73, 1999.C02.42161 (1999).1 Clearly, if Walker was indeed on the ValuJet flight, then, unless she engineered the crash as a means of disguised suicide, she did not “voluntarily” absent herself from a possible future trial for a crime for which she had not even been indicted at the time of her death.

In the case of the Walker estate’s suit against the ValuJet defendants the court never had an opportunity to address this issue. Deficiencies of the police investigation of Holmes’ murder, especially their failure to obtain potentially important DNA evidence, and the impossibility of correcting these deficiencies because Walker’s body was never recovered from the Everglades together led the ValuJet defense to seek a settlement of the estate’s suit. The estate was probably also eager to settle in light of the continuing adverse publicity which would have surrounded a trial, with consequent emotional trauma for Walker’s survivors, especially her children.

Thus, the interesting legal questions potentially raised by the Walker matter are left to some future court.

As an aside, while Walker’s death prevented her criminal prosecution for Holmes’ murder, Holmes’ survivors might well have a strong civil wrongful-death case against the Walker estate. Without the ValuJet settlement, Walker’s estate would have been devoid of assets. With that settlement Holmes’ survivors might well be able to secure substantial compensation.

Stephen P. Dresch, Ph.D.

1“In a line of cases over the years involving review of federal convictions, we have held that a court cannot commence a trial in absentia unless the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waives his right to be present, and the public interest in proceeding clearly outweighs the interest of the voluntarily absent defendant in attending his trial. See, e.g., United States v. Tortora, 464 F.2d 1202, 1209-10 (2d Cir. 1972); United States v. Fontanez, 878 F.2d 33, 36 (2d Cir. 1989); United States v. Nichols, 56 F.3d 403, 416-17 (2d Cir. 1995). However, only the first element--a knowing and voluntary waiver--is required by the Constitution; the second element--a balance of interests weighing in favor of trial--simply governs the trial court's exercise of its discretion to proceed with a trial in absentia that is constitutionally permissible. See, e.g., Tortora, 464 F.2d at 1209-10. See also Taylor v. United States, 414 U.S. 17 (1973) (per curiam) (discussing knowing and voluntary waiver of right to be present at trial as sufficient for constitutionally valid trial in absentia); Clark v. Scott, 70 F.3d 386, 389-90 (5th Cir. 1995) (holding that balancing test not constitutionally required).”

Opdateret d. 25.1.2002