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No Ex Post Facto Law Defense in Murder-for-Hire Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 11, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals tackled murder-for-hire, the statute of limitations, and ex post facto laws.

Here’s just one of the problems with getting caught up in a murder-for-hire scheme: If you’re unsuccessful, you don’t get paid, and if you’re successful, it may be hard to use the statute of limitations to evade prosecution.

(Yes, a greater problem is that it is wrong to kill a person, but we don’t think that someone who would actually contemplate murder-for-hire is persuaded by such sound reasoning.)

Karen Coleman wanted to kill her husband. She mentioned this to her friend, Michelle Nolan. Michelle had Karen talk to Larry Nolan, Michelle's husband. Larry asked about the amount of life insurance involved, and then agreed to have Karen's husband killed in exchange for part of the life insurance proceeds.

After three more people, including appellants James Kornhardt and Steven Mueller, became tangled in this factual scenario, Karen got what she wanted. In 1992, her rag-tag team of assassins murdered her husband.

Seven years later, an inmate who was friends with Larry gave the police information about the murder that led the police back to Kornhardt and Mueller.

Karen, Kornhardt, and Mueller were charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Karen pleaded guilty to both charges. Mueller and Kornhardt went to trial, and were found guilty.

Kornhardt and Mueller argued that the trial court erred in denying their motions to dismiss the charges because they were barred by the five-year statute of limitations.

Prior to 1994, the federal murder-for-hire statute fell within a "catchall" five-year statute of limitations for non-capital federal offenses. In 1994, Congress amended the murder-for-hire statute to increase the maximum penalty from life in prison to death for a murder-for-hire that resulted in death.

Since the statute of limitations does not apply to a capital offense, effective September 13, 1994, a murder-for-hire that results in a death is not subject to a statute of limitations.

Kornhardt and Mueller argued that the ex post facto clause forbids the application of a penalty increase to an already completed crime. They claimed that the murder-for-hire and accompanying conspiracy were completed on or about October 6, 1993, before Congress amended the statute.

Kornhardt and Mueller were charged under the federal murder-for-hire and conspiracy statutes because Karen had used interstate commerce - the mail used to deliver the life insurance checks - to carry out the conspiracy.

Kornhardt and Mueller received payment in October 1994, and the Karen continued receiving payments until 1997, so the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that the murder-for-hire crime was not completed prior to the amendment going into effect on September 13, 1994. Thus there was no ex post facto violation.

We certainly hope that murder-for-hire cases are rare, and quickly solved, but if trying a similarly cold murder-for-hire and conspiracy charge, examine the payment timeline to determine whether the charging statute is an ex post facto application of the law.

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