Killer spouses lose right to corpse
Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, 9:48 p.m.
BUFFALO — New York has closed a legal loophole that allowed people accused of murdering their spouses the sole rights to their victims' remains.
In a domestic violence bill signed into law on Thursday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a spouse charged with murder or one who was under a restraining order no longer can claim authority over what happens to the victim's body.
The law, which takes effect Nov. 24, addresses situations such as that of Constance Shepherd, who was murdered in 2009. Her husband, Stephen Shepherd, who was later convicted of her killing, was left to decide what would become of her remains.
“It was a travesty. He abused her during her life and continued to abuse her even in death,” said Elaine O'Toole, the slain woman's cousin.
For months after his trial, Shepherd refused to make funeral arrangements. Invoices from the coroner's office, where the body was being kept, piled up, O'Toole said.
Stephen Shepherd's attorney eventually was granted control of the body and opted to bury her ashes in the Adirondack Mountains, near one of Stephen Shepherd's favorite fishing spots.
“There was no closure for us — absolutely none,” O'Toole said, adding that visiting the site would be emotionally difficult.
State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, who sponsored the legislation after O'Toole approached him, pointed to other instances in which the loophole has caused grief for families.
Another case was the 2009 beheading of Aasiya Hassan in Orchard Park, N.Y., by her husband Muzzammil Hassan. It occurred in the cable-television studio that the couple founded to promote understanding of his Muslim culture.
Hassan was found guilty of her murder, which occurred six days after she filed for divorce.
“It just doesn't make sense that if you're accused of murdering your spouse that you get control over their body and funeral arrangements,” Ranzenhofer said. “It's outrageous when you really think about it.”
The law includes a provision to allow judges to consider what danger that domestic abusers might pose to their spouses when considering whether to grant bail. Judges previously were limited to determining a suspect's flight risk.
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