ALBANY, N.Y. – A family who loses a loved one in New York to domestic violence will no longer face the additional anger and heartache of seeing a spouse who is suspected of murder controlling the victim's burial.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders said Monday they have agreed on legislation that would end the power of abusive spouses to dictate what happens to the bodies of the wives or husbands they're accused of killing.
The change was pushed in part by relatives of Constance Shepherd, whose husband had slashed her throat, then refused to release her body in 2009. Eventually, Shepherd had his attorney bury her remains hundreds of miles from her western New York home, near his favorite fishing spot, outraging her family.
When Elaine O'Toole, the victim's cousin, was told the proposed law would become a reality, she cried.
"She was crying and was very, very happy," said Republican Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer of Erie County, the bill's main sponsor. "It's been long overdue for her. It's a good day and sometimes it takes a long to reach justice. Justice finally arrived."
In a similar case, a husband beheaded his wife inside the suburban Buffalo television station the couple operated, then refused to let her family bury her. A week before the killing, the 37-year-old mother of three had filed for divorce.
Laws to protect murder victims after death have been passed by several states for decades.
"Slayer laws" go back decades to 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.
"With domestic violence remaining a major problem here in New York and across the nation, our state must continue to lead in strengthening laws to better protect victims and crack down on offenders who cause harm to their families," Cuomo, a Democrat, said Monday.
Under New York's current health law, the surviving spouse has primary control over a deceased 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.
New York's new bill is part of a package that would create a new felony of aggravated family offense based on repeated misdemeanor arrests in domestic violence cases, facing no more than a year in the local jail for each conviction. Currently, a perpetrator could be arrested for countless misdemeanors without facing a state prison sentence.
"With an estimated 400,000 domestic violence incidents reported every year in New York, this is a crisis that demands our attention and our best efforts," said Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat.
Closed-door negotiations on the measure included finding a way to avoid denying a suspect who is wrongly charged the right to bury his or her spouse. A court hearing would be called so the suspect could argue for the right to bury his or her spouse.
A court hearing could also be called to hear the case of a spouse who had a court order of protection against them, but isn't a suspect in the killing.
The law will also empower judges to set higher bail in domestic violence cases for "risk factors" including if the suspect owned a gun. The measure also will create a statewide fatality review team to find new ways to prevent intimate partner homicides.
The package is expected to easily pass the Senate and Assembly by June 21, the end of the Legislature's regular session.