NY Seeks to Deny Murderers Spousal Burial Rights

A bill in New York's Legislature is aimed at ending the power of an abusive spouse even in death

By Michael Gormley
|  Monday, May 14, 2012  |  Updated 6:07 PM EDT
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NY Seeks to Deny Murderers Spousal Burial Rights

AP

Elaine O'Toole of Tonawanda, N.Y., left, talks about a bill to protect the remains of crime victims during a news conference in Albany on Monday.

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As Constance Shepherd's family grieved over her death at the hands of her husband, they had hoped to find some comfort by giving her a proper funeral.

But after slashing his wife's throat, Stephen Shepherd inflicted more pain, they said.

For months in 2009, Shepherd refused to release his wife's body as he was tried and sent to prison for her murder. Eventually, Shepherd had his attorney bury her remains hundreds of miles from her western New York home and her outraged family, near his favorite fishing spot.

A bill in New York's Legislature is aimed at ending that power of an abusive spouse even in death. It would prohibit spouses charged with murder or subject to restraining orders from dictating what happens to the bodies of the wives or husbands they're accused of killing, said Republican Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer of Erie County, the bill's main sponsor. With majority-party sponsors in the Senate and Assembly, the bill's chances of passage are good.

"The bully took her away from us in life and then he took her away in death," said Elaine O'Toole, Constance Shepherd's cousin. O'Toole said she was close to "Connie," who lived a mile away in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda.

Laws to protect murder victims after death have been passed by several states for decades.

In those states, "slayer laws" going back decades prohibit murderers from making funeral arrangements for spouses they've killed. Such laws primarily prohibit murderers from collecting life insurance claims, estates and other benefits because of their victims' deaths, but often limit the power to hold the funeral for slain spouses as well, said Mai Fernandez of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

"I think it's a good idea," Fernandez said of New York's proposal.

"You shouldn't get any kind of benefit for murdering people ... and the power to dispose of the body properly shouldn't be given back to the murderer," she said.

Neither the center nor the National Conference of State Legislatures had information on whether any other states are considering legislation similar to the New York bill.

Under New York's current health law, spouses have primary control over a spouse's funeral arrangements, regardless of the manner of death. If a spouse isn't alive, the power goes to children and the deceased's parents.

At a news conference Monday, O'Toole, 53, said Constance Shepherd's family was never told when she was buried. "This doubled the pain."

The husband, however, apparently honored some wish of his spouse, a Buddhist, by burying her at a Buddhist temple, where members accepted her cremated remains without cost.

New York's bill is also prompted by another case in which a husband who beheaded his wife inside the suburban Buffalo television station the couple operated, then refused to let her family bury her. Muzzammil Hassan was sentenced in 2011 to 25 years to life for beheading his wife, Aasiya Hassan, and stabbing her more than 40 times.

A week before the killing, the 37-year-old mother of three filed for divorce. It would be months before she was buried, and then it was controlled by her murderer.

"It doesn't make sense that if you're accused of murdering your spouse, you get control over their body and the funeral arrangements," Razenhofer said. "That only serves to compound a family's grief after the tragic passing of a loved one."

The new element in the bill would prohibit someone subject to a restraining order, as well as an accused murderer, from having control over a dead spouse's body.

The bill also would allow for a court hearing so accused spouses who contend they have been wrongly charged with murder can make a case and bury the victim. It also allows for a similar court challenge by a spouse who had an order of protection sworn against him or her, but who wan't a suspect in the murder.

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