Now and then there's a news story to remind us that few things are as simple as they may seem.
Donald Eugene Miller Jr. remained dead this week, even though he was feeling well enough to stand up in the Hancock County, Ohio, probate court and ask Judge Allan Davis to recognize what sounds pretty obvious: He's alive.
Mr. Miller, who is 61, disappeared from his home in Arcadia, Ohio, in 1986.
Authorities searched. They sent out alerts. They tried to track him down with particular urgency because he reportedly owed $26,000 in child support for his two children with his ex-wife, Rachel Miller.
But they never found a clue as to where he could be. Donald Miller was not a master of stealth and disguise — he was just a heavy drinker who couldn't hold a job. So after eight years without a trace, officials began to assume he must have staggered off and quietly died somewhere.
He was declared dead in 1994, and the children he abandoned received death benefits from Social Security.
But in 2005, he showed up in a nearby town called Fostoria. His parents had to break the news to him that he had been declared dead. Try to imagine that conversation: "Feel like a snack, Son, or are you too dead?"
He told the court this week that he hadn't disappeared. But after losing his job and facing child support bills, he just didn't know what else to do.
"It kind of went further than I ever expected it to," Miller explained, and asked the judge to declare him undead.
"We've got the obvious here. A man sitting in the courtroom; he appears to be in good health," Judge Davis said, but added that the law is clear: Declarations of death can only be rescinded within three years.
"I don't know where that leaves you, but you're still deceased as far as the law is concerned," said Davis.
This may sound like a scene of the absurd from a Joseph Heller novel: A man who is demonstrably not dead has to go to court to try to prove he's alive. But he can't convince the judge he's standing right in front of that he's alive because a court ruled he was dead 19 years ago; although he isn't.
Imagine Catch-22 as a zombie movie. Wait — I'll bet someone in Hollywood already has.
But here's something to consider: If Ohio didn't have a three-year limitation on rescinding declarations of death, Donald Miller's family would be required to repay all the Social Security benefits the children received after he abandoned them. How unjust or absurd would that seem?
In the end, Davis said the law was clear. Judges may have life-and-death powers, but they cannot restore life.
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