In 2013, a mentally ill woman named Leatrice Brewer asked a judge for a portion of her dead children’s $350,000 estate in what was an unprecedented legal move.
Why was it unprecedented? Because back in 2008, Brewer stabbed her 6-year-old daughter, Jewell Ward, before drowning the young girl along with two sons, 5-year-old Michael Demesyeux and 18-month-old Innocent Demesyeux Jr., in the bathtub of her New Cassell, NY, apartment. She then placed her children’s bodies on the bed and attempted to kill herself by drinking household cleaning chemicals. When that suicide attempt failed, she tried to jump out of a second story window. That attempt also failed, and Brewer was consequently arrested for the murder of her three children.
The details of Brewer’s case suggest that the woman suffered from a serious mental illness, and psychiatric professionals agreed. After pleading insanity and testifying that she killed her children because she believed they were under a voodoo curse, Brewer was found not guilty and was committed to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center. She will be kept there until psychiatrists agree she is no longer mentally ill and does not pose a danger to herself and others.
So Brewer’s request for a part of her children’s estate was unlike anything the state of New York—and the US—had ever seen before. Because she was found “not guilty,” Brewer was legally able to go to court, but she quickly sparked controversy over the idea that she might profit off of her children’s deaths – deaths that occurred at her own hand.
Brewer’s Unusual Case
If Brewer had succeeded and was awarded part of her children’s estate, she would have set a precedent in New York. The state has a Son of Sam Law in place in order to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, as they might, for example, if they sold the rights to make their life into a book or movie. If Brewer’s case fell under that law, she would not have been able to fight for her children’s estate.
However, her case is unusual in that she was not convicted of her crime—there is no doubt that she murdered her children, but the law did not hold her responsible due to her mental state at the time. George Washington University law professor George Turley told The New York Post, “The facts do seem to place her outside the scope of the law, although that does not mean there could not be other barriers to her recovering from the estate of her children.”
Indeed, although Brewer was allowed to present her case for the estate, her likelihood of succeeding was low to begin with. Attorneys in the case said she was unlikely to see any money due to a $1.2 million lien against her for psychiatric counseling and other services provided to her at the psychiatric center. Furthermore, there was an immense public outcry after Brewer tried to profit off her children’s deaths. Attorney Thomas Foley, a representative for the father of Brewer’s two sons, told The New York Post, “As a human being, I am outraged and disgusted by this. As an attorney, I have some level of understanding why we have to go through this charade, but it is difficult to forget we are here because of the actions of a crazy person who killed her kids.”
The case’s outcome was unsurprising: a Nassau judge ruled in November 2013 that Brewer had no right to benefit from her victims’ estate, and Brewer is still committed to a psychiatric hospital. She will undergo evaluations every two years to determine if she is eligible for release.
Mental Illness and Probate Litigation
Although probate litigation should be based on reason, it can often become emotional for the people involved. Brewer’s case is an extreme example: not only did the decedents in her case die of unnatural causes, they died at the hands of the very person who was trying to benefit from their estate later on.
In many probate litigation cases, it is easy to see why a potential beneficiary might argue for a cut of the decedents’ estate: they may want to keep the house in the family or need the additional money after a spouse who supported them passed away. In Brewer’s case, however, it was hard to find motives beyond money. Maebell Mickens, Brewer’s grandmother, told a journalist at The New York Post that money was not part of Brewer’s motivation for seeking part of her children’s estate, but she did not offer up an alternative reason her granddaughter was taking the case to court.
Peter Kelly, Brewer’s attorney, argued that the only reason Brewer sought estate money was to prevent Innocent Demesyeux, the father of her two boys, from benefitting. She believed that Demesyeux had abandoned her, and blames him for playing a role in her psychotic episode, saying that she “assumed he put voodoo” on her.
Another potential reason Brewer attempted to benefit from her children’s estate may simply be that she has a serious mental illness and is struggling to come to terms with her children’s deaths. She claims that she looks at a photo of her three children every night before she goes to bed and just wants to “get out of the hospital and live a good life.”
Brewer’s tragic story raises an important question for probate attorneys and anyone involved in estate administration: how should the claim of a person with a diagnosed mental illness be handled? Brewer’s case is an extreme example, and one of the first cases to benefit from a loophole in the Son of Sam Law, but it is possible that other individuals with mental illnesses could seek to benefit from an estate that they have no right to benefit from. This is the type of situation that can clog up courts down and slow down estate administration, potentially to the detriment of legitimate beneficiaries.
If you find yourself in a situation where a person who is not of sound mind claims to be entitled to a decedents’ estate, the best thing you can do is work with an experienced probate attorney who can help you navigate this complex area of law.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.