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Tina Susman, Published June 12 2012

Killers should not be able to plan victims’ funerals, New York decides

NEW YORK — Killers in New York state no longer will have the power to control what happens to their victims’ remains. The prohibition comes from a new bill prompted by the case of a woman slain by her husband and then buried near his favorite fishing spot, over her family’s objections.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers said Monday they had agreed on final wording of the bill, which is expected to pass easily before the end of the legislative session on June 21. The so-called slayer law would prevent those charged in a person’s death from controlling the disposal of their victim’s remains. It also would allow people wrongly charged with a murder to appeal to a court for the right to arrange disposition of remains.

The family of Constance Shepherd, whose throat was slashed in 2009, pushed for the legislation after a battle with Shepherd’s husband, Stephen Shepherd. He was sentenced last year to 21 years in prison for her murder.

According to an announcement after the Senate passed the legislation in May, Stephen Shepherd “refused to take any action to dispose of his wife’s remains, leaving her body in the county morgue” for months. When he finally did deal with his wife’s remains, it was to have her buried near his favorite fishing spot, far from her home in the western New York city of Tonawanda.

Under state law, he had the sole right to her remains, prompting state Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer to propose legislation to change the law. “It doesn’t make sense that if you’re accused of murdering your spouse, you get control over their body and the funeral arrangements,” Ranzehofer said in May.

Constance Shepherd’s cousin, Elaine O’Toole, said at a news conference Monday that the family never was told where she was buried, The Associated Press reported. “This doubled the pain,” she said. “The bully took her away from us in life and then he took her away in death,” AP quoted O’Toole as saying.

In a similar case, also cited by Ranzenhofer as a reason for the new law, relatives of a woman beheaded by her husband and stabbed more than 40 times were denied the right to her remains after her 2009 slaying. Muzzammil Hassan was sentenced last year to 25 years to life for the murder of Aasiya Hassan, who was killed inside the suburban Buffalo TV station the couple operated.