EL PASO, Texas – Deceased actor Sherman Hemsley's longtime friend can proceed with his burial and running his estate, a Texas judge ruled Friday over the objections of his half-brother from Philadelphia.
Hemsley, who played George Jefferson on the TV sitcom "The Jeffersons," died July 24 of lung cancer. His body has been in refrigerated storage at an El Paso funeral home since.
Judge Patricia B. Chew sided Friday with Flora Enchinton Bernal, who was named in Hemsley's will as the executor of his estate. Chew upheld the validity of his will and granted Enchinton "the authority to dispose, I shouldn't say dispose, to proceed with the remains of Sherman Hemsley in a manner as she wishes."
DNA tests showed Friday that 78-year-old Richard Thornton is Hemsley's half-brother. He wanted to bury his brother at a veterans' cemetery in Philadelphia, where Hemsley grew up.
Thornton's attorney, Mark Davis, said afterward that he would seek an immediate stay of Chew's ruling to prevent the burial from taking place. He said they will eventually appeal.
Court documents indicate Hemsley's estate is worth more than $50,000. Thornton's daughter, Louise Thornton, said her father "didn't come after money."
"He came to bury his brother," she said. "And they turned the whole thing into a three-ring circus."
According to a deposition from Michael Wayne Schmiderer, a DNA expert with testing company Labcorp, the DNA tests show there is a 99.99% probability that Hemsley and Thornton are half-brothers.
During his testimony, Thornton said Hemsley, four years his junior, was born from an extramarital relationship his father had.
"He was a Methodist minister and would have been bad for his career," Thornton said of their father.
Although Thornton said the two didn't call each other or exchange Christmas cards, Hemsley once publicly acknowledged Thornton was his brother. During a 2011 concert in New Jersey, Hemsley "introduced me to the audience and said I was his brother," Thornton said.
Enchinton said she saw Thornton at the concert, but said she didn't remember Hemsley saying that.
During their testimonies Friday, both Thornton and Enchinton agreed they would give Hemsley a military burial, according to his wishes. Hemsley had spent the last 20 years of his life in El Paso.
Earlier in the day, Davis questioned the attorney and notary who did Hemsley's will, suggesting that Hemsley may not have been of sound mind when he signed the document. He also asked Julian Horwitz why he took instructions from Enchinton, a longtime friend of Hemsley's.
"He said he wanted all of his possessions, whatever they were, to pass to Ms. (Enchinton) Bernal," Horwitz said. "At no point did I ever suspect he lacked capacity, based on my 50 years of experience as a lawyer."
Others who testified Friday, including the witnesses to the will being signed, said Hemsley had full use of his faculties when he signed the will.
Heinz-Ulrich Landeck, a nurse at the hospital where Hemsley was being treated, said "he was always an oriented person of the time and place and who he was."
He said Hemsley visited the nursing station once and "talked about his career, he mentioned (Enchinton) was his manager."
Robert Almonte, the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas and a friend of Hemsley's since 1999, also testified. He said Hemsley told him Enchinton was his only family.
"I asked about family in Philadelphia, about wanting to go back," Almonte said, recalling one of their conversations. "He said no. He said Flora was his family."