It’s a longstanding legal doctrine that if a person dies while they’re in the process of appealing their conviction for a crime, that conviction is vacated. The doctrine, abatement ab initio, literally means “from the beginning” in Latin.
The appeal is dismissed, and the conviction is wiped off their record. It aligns with the concept that a case is not considered decided while there is still an appeal pending in the courts.
What if that person was paying restitution to the victims of the crime for which they were convicted? Does that end also, or is their estate responsible for paying it (if there are enough assets)?
That question was tackled in Colorado late last year. The case that made it to the Colorado Supreme Court involved a man found guilty of securities fraud and theft from five people who had invested in his business. In addition to a lengthy prison sentence, he was ordered to pay some $220,000. Most of that was to go to those investors.
When he died of cancer while appealing the conviction, the state’s Court of Appeals ruled that restitution to the victims ended with his death. The judge who wrote the opinion noted that, while unfair to the victims, “such outcomes are an inevitable consequence of the doctrine of abatement ab initio.”
State prosecutors argued to the Supreme Court that “our criminal justice system should aim to provide restoration and healing to victims whenever possible.” However, the high court upheld the appellate court ruling. The justice who wrote the ruling stated that the state legislature “hasn’t clearly acted to exclude restitution orders from abatement ab initio.” The appellate court also noted that the General Assembly could clear up this question through legislation.
While this ruling affected the case at hand and a 2011 case when an appellate court ruled that a restitution order stayed in place after the person paying it died. However, it didn’t address what would happen if the convicted person took their own life rather than dying of natural causes.
If you have a loved one who was dealing with the justice system when they passed away, it’s important to know what, if any, obligations the estate or your family might continue to face. It’s crucial to have experienced legal guidance.