March 11 2013

Cooley & Handy Fights Bucks County's Attempt to Impose Cost of Public Defender on Son in Mother's Trial for Murder of Father

Blog Written by  Kevin J. Handy

The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and court previously prevented the son from using life insurance money from his father’s death to hire a private defense attorney for his mother on the basis that his mother was prohibited from benefiting from the death of his father under Pennsylvania’s “Slayer’s Act.” The son is now crying foul that Bucks County is trying to recoup its costs for having the Public Defender represent Mother by placing a lien against the couples’ former marital residence, which the son now owns.

On October 3, 2010, Dorleen Burklund shot and killed her estranged husband, Michael Burklund, at the family’s home in upper Bucks County. The parties’ only child, Gabriel Burklund, was at the home that day, heard the shots, and waited outside with his mother for the police to arrive.

The murder prompted an unexpected fight over how to pay for Ms. Burklund’s criminal defense attorneys. Months after the murder, at a hearing on appointing counsel to represent Ms. Burklund in her criminal trial, Gabriel’s attorney, Kevin J. Handy, Esq. of Cooley & Handy in Doylestown, told the Bucks County judge assigned to mother’s case that Gabriel intended to use some of the life insurance money that he was expecting to receive as the result of his father’s death to obtain defense counsel for his mother, and asked the court to delay appointing the Public Defender until private counsel could be retained.

Apparently unhappy with that arrangement, a Bucks County Assistant District Attorney, who was prosecuting Ms. Burklund and was present at the hearing, contacted the attorneys for the Estate of Michael Burklund and told them what Gabriel intended to do with the life insurance proceeds. That kicked off a fight in Bucks County Orphans’ Court, and later federal court, over Gabriel’s use of the insurance proceeds to pay for his mother’s defense. The Estate claimed that Gabriel’s use of the insurance proceeds to pay for his mother’s defense would violate Pennsylvania’s “Slayer’s Act,” a little-known statute that prohibits a murderer from benefiting from a victim’s death. Gabriel claimed that his mother wasn’t benefiting from his father’s death, but rather from his generosity, because he was entitled to receive the money and should be permitted to spend it how he sees fit.

The Bucks Count’s Orphans’ court ultimately agreed with the Estate and prevented Gabriel from using his insurance money to pay for a private defense attorney for his mother, although he ultimately received the money. As a result, the judge in Ms. Burklund’s criminal case ordered the public defender to represent Ms. Burklund. The judge also ordered that a lien be placed against the couple’s home for the “reasonable value of the services of the public defender.” Ms. Burklund subsequently transferred her ownership interest in the home to Gabriel.

Cooley & Handy is now challenging Bucks County’s right to that lien on behalf of Gabriel. “The judge in the criminal case never had the authority to order the lien in the first place,” according to Mr. Handy, “the law is very clear on that issue.”

Bucks County, however, is arguing that the order imposing the lien should remain in effect and that Gabriel does not have any real interest in the home to protect. According to a brief file in the matter, Bucks County is claiming that the Estate of Michael Burklund, not Gabriel, owns the home by operation of the Slayer’s Act and that Ms. Burklund lost her ownership interest in the home when she killed her husband and, therefore, had nothing to transfer to Gabriel.

“If that is the case,” claims Mr. Handy, “then the Slayer’s Act should also preclude Bucks County from receiving money out of the house for the cost of the public defender in Ms. Burklund’s case. Apparently Bucks County thinks that its acceptable for Dorleen Buklund to benefit from the murder as long as it’s the one getting paid."

Gabriel is also the primary beneficiary of the Estate of Michael Burklund.

“Either way you look at it, whether my client owns a majority interest in the house or the Estate owns the house outright, Bucks County is basically trying to take money out of my client’s pocket to pay for the cost of the public defender after it prevented him from using his money to pay for a private defense attorney in the first place. I don’t know how anyone can think that is reasonable.”

A hearing is scheduled in the matter for March 14, 2013.

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