Smallwood v. Commonwealth

In Smallwood v. Commonwealth, 36 Va. App. 483, 553 S.E.2d 140, 145-46 (Va. Ct. App. 2001), the appellate court reversed a murder conviction in part because the trial court erroneously admitted a statement that one week before the murder, the victim had submitted a form requesting to make the defendant the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. There was no evidence that the defendant knew that his wife was making him the beneficiary of her policy, and thus no proper foundation was laid for the policy's admissibility. See id. at 146. Significantly, the court rejected the argument that the marital bond between the defendant and victim was sufficient alone to establish that the defendant knew of the existence of the insurance policy and the change in beneficiaries: The State produced no evidence, direct or circumstantial, to establish appellant knew about the proposed change of beneficiary. Although the wife submitted the form less than a week prior to the murder, that circumstance allows only for idle speculation that appellant knew about the submission. Id. The court explained that where motive is a material issue, any fact or circumstance establishing a party's motive must be shown to have probably been known by the party, "for a man cannot be influenced or moved to act by a fact or circumstance of which he is ignorant." Id. at 145.