"[There's a] man sitting in the courtroom, he appears to be in good health," noted Judge Allan Davis on Monday. But by the end of the hearing, that man was dead.
He had also been dead when he walked in, though, so nothing really changed.
As Ryan Dunn of The Courier reported on Tuesday, Donald Eugene Miller Jr., formerly of Arcadia, Ohio, had been declared legally dead in 1994. In fact, Judge Davis was the one who issued that order. After a hearing at which Miller appeared (physically) in an effort to prove he was not actually dead, Davis ruled that despite this fairly compelling evidence of life, in the eyes of the law Miller would have to stay dead.
The reason for this is (if my research is correct, and of course it probably is) Ohio Revised Code section 2121.01 et seq., known as the "Presumed Decedents' Law." Despite the title, the law does not belong to any presumed decedents and certainly does not benefit them in any way. It provides for a "presumption of the death of a person" if he or she:
- disappeared and hasn't been heard from in five years;
- disappeared less than five years ago after being "exposed to a specific peril of death"; or
- was on active duty in the armed forces and has been declared dead under the "Federal Missing Persons Act."
Under the law, an interested party can bring an action stating the necessary facts and asking a court to issue a decree stating that the person is presumed dead. The PDL is part of the state's probate code, and so the typical effect is simply to provide that the property of the now-legally dead person can be distributed as if he or she was in fact dead as a doornail. Wills can go through probate, real and personal property can be distributed, life insurance pays out, and so on.
In this case, Miller had been "last reported in Arcadia" in 1986. He testified Monday that he had lost his job, decided to look elsewhere for work, and then it just "kind of went further than I ever expected it to." (I.e., Florida.) After he'd been missing for eight years, his ex-wife asked for the death decree so their children could get Social Security death benefits, and Judge Davis agreed. According to the report, Miller returned to Ohio in 2005, whereupon his parents informed him that he was dead. He's apparently been okay with that for some time, but told the court that he would like to be alive again now so he can get his Social Security card and driver's license back.
The Ohio law does provide for situations in which it is later "established that the presumed decedent is alive," which is what Miller was hoping to show by bringing his body to court and proving he was still in it. A death decree can be vacated, at which point the presumed decedent's status is elevated to "person erroneously presumed to be dead," and he or she then has certain rights to recover property. (His ex-wife said she only opposed Miller's motion because she didn't want to have to pay anything back, and noted that he owes about $26,000 in child support.) The problem is that the law is pretty clear that this has to be done "within a three-year period from the date of the decree…." Since 19 is more than three, Miller is still dead.
"I don't know where that leaves you," the judge told him, "but you're still deceased as far as the law is concerned."
Exactly where that does leave him doesn't seem to be clear. On Twitter, for example, one person asked me whether this means "no laws apply to him because he is legally dead? you can't charge a dead man." I can't remember any cases of a dead man being charged with a crime, but I wouldn't put it past our justice system to do that, and here we have a living dead man. So if I were Donald Eugene Miller Jr., I would not take this as a get-out-of-jail-free-because-I'm-dead card. Prosecutors would presumably point to the fact that this law is in the probate code and so should be limited to effects on property, and argue that it would be bad policy to give people immunity just because they happen to be deceased.
But, hang on a second … Section 2121.04(B) specifically says that "[t]he death of such presumed decedent shall for all purposes under the law of this state be regarded as having occurred as of the date of such decree." Emphasis added. Doesn't say "probate code" or even "property law." I still wouldn't commit any crimes if I were him, but even assuming this is limited to civil law, it has some interesting possibilities. Can he get a job in Ohio? If he can, does he have to pay taxes, or can he file a return every year listing his status as "still deceased"?
Something tells me the IRS has already figured out a way around this little dodge, but the Ohio Legislature may have some work to do.