Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, September 08, 2001

Court rules killer can't get spousal benefits

Woman 'intended to murder husband'

Janice Tibbetts
The Ottawa Citizen

A Quebec woman who killed her husband in a fit of rage is not entitled to his federal benefits because she cannot profit from her crime, says the Federal Court of Appeal.

The decision overturns an earlier ruling in which a judge found Constance St-Hilaire should be exempt from the federal rule because the Quebec Civil Code differs from the legal system in the rest of Canada.

The latest decision means Ms. St-Hilaire, who knifed her husband during a fight six years ago, is not entitled to a spousal pension of $628.68 a month and a lump sum payment of $157,000 in survivor benefits.

She took the case to court when the federal Treasury Board refused to give her benefits in keeping with a federal policy that bans people from profiting from their crimes.

In a 1999 Federal Court ruling, Ms. St-Hilaire had succeeded in her argument that her 1996 conviction for manslaughter did not prove that she intended to kill Gérard Morin when she grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him after he pushed her against a wall.

She argued she should not be disqualified from inheritance because Quebec civil law only excludes people who attempt to commit murder. Since the federal Criminal Code is silent in the area, she maintained that she should fall under the Quebec provision. But Treasury Board lawyer stook the case to the Federal Court of Appeal.

Two of the three judges on the panel agreed she is unworthy of any financial gain from her husband, a former Canadian Coast Guard worker who had contributed to his benefits plan for 25 years.

"There is no doubt Ms. St-Hilaire wanted, if not to kill her husband, to at least cause serious bodily harm to him likely to cause his death," wrote Justice Gilles Letourneau.

"She had announced her intentions during a quarrel, saying: 'Some day I'm going to stick it to the bastard.'"

The lengthy ruling concentrated on the legal debate of whether Quebec civil law can trump Canadian common law, a dilemma that Justice Robert Décary described as "a formidable legal puzzle."

Judge Décary, in a separate opinion, concluded that Ms. St-Hilaire should not be exempt from the federal policy simply because she never went to trial and therefore her intent to kill was never proven.

The English version of the appeal court ruling was made public this week, following a French version that was released earlier this year.

Ms. St-Hilaire, who is now about 50 years old, was initially charged with second-degree murder but she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to two years less a day in jail. The couple lived in the Quebec City suburb of Charlesbourg and had no children so Ms. St-Hilaire was poised to be her husband's sole heir.

"Should the circumstances of the crime lead to the disqualification of the respondent? I think so," he wrote.

"It would be too easy for anyone charged with murder to avoid the civil consequences of a conviction for murder by pleading guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and avoiding a trial in the course of which all the relevant facts would be disclosed."

Judge Decary noted several examples in the rest of the country of killers who lost in court when seeking an inheritance, starting with a woman who poisoned her husband in the late 1800s.

In a 1999 decision, however, Federal Court Justice Pierre Blais had ordered Treasury Board to pay Ms. St-Hilaire in a decision that found the crime of manslaughter fell outside the rules of the Quebec Civil Code that exempt killers from inheritance.

She consciously and deliberately made an attempt on the life of the deceased, who had a problem with special treatment for Quebecers,

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen