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Court Kills Philadelphia Woman’s Lawsuit Over Slaying of Son

June 27, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today killed a Philadephia woman’s $1 million lawsuit against the federal government over the 1979 slaying in New Mexico of her soldier son.

The justices, by an 8-0 vote, ruled that the government does not have to defend itself at trial against Louise Shearer’s charges that Army negligence led to her son’s murder.

Led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the court relied on its 1950 decision barring lawsuits against the government for injuries sustained as a result of military service.

Vernon Shearer was an 18-year-old private on leave from Fort Bliss in Texas when in 1979 he was kidnapped and murdered in Otero County, N.M., by another off-duty soldier, Andrew Heard.

Three years earlier, Heard had been sentenced to four years in a German prison for the murder of a German woman while stationed with the Army in that country.

He was released after serving three years of the sentence, and was transferred to Fort Bliss. The transfer occurred four months before Heard’s attack against Shearer.

Three of Heard’s superior officers previously had recommended that he be discharged, one of them calling him ″unsuitable for military service.″ It was not until after Shearer’s murder that Heard was given a mental examination.

Heard was convicted in a New Mexico state court of murdering Shearer, and was sentenced to 15 to 55 years in prison.

Mrs. Shearer’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, charged that the Army was negligent in not discharging Heard and in failing to warn other enlisted men of Heard’s violent tendencies.

The suit was filed under the Federal Torts Claims Act, a 1946 law that allows citizens to sue the government for damages for the ″negligent or wrongful act″ of a government employee.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Mrs. Shearer, despite the Supreme Court’s 1950 ruling creating a military exception to the 1946 law, was entitled to her day in court.

″Being kidnapped off base at gunpoint can never be perceived as one of the activities or anticipated free benefits of being in the armed services,″ the appeals court said.

But in today’s decision, Burger said the location of the murder ″is not nearly as important as whether the suit requires the civilian court to second- guess military decisions, and whether the suit might impair essential military discipline.″

He said Mrs. Shearer’s lawsuit ″strikes at the core of these concerns ... (and) goes directly to the management of the military; it calls into question basic choices about the discipline, supervision and control of a serviceman.″

Justice Lewis F. Powell did not participate in the decision.

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