Tonawanda News

May 15, 2012

Bill aims to fix unjust law

By Neale Gulley,
Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — When Constance Shepherd was brutally murdered in 2009, relatives of the Town of Tonawanda woman were horrified to learn that her husband, the man later convicted of her murder, was left to decide the fate of her remains.

On Monday, the state Senate approved for the second time a bill that would avoid a repeat of that scenario, this time with changes designed to help the would-be law’s chances in the Assembly, where it is still awaiting approval.

The legislation was again passed 59 to 1, this time including a clause allowing accused spouses to appeal their rights if they insist they were wrongly accused.

“This is a concern that (the Assembly) raised. It gives an out if someone wants to say that the should be able to access to the remains, this gives them an option to appeal to the court,” state Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, the bill’s lead sponsor, said.

The rest of the bill is unchanged, stipulating that those who have been arrested for the murder of their spouse, or who have an active order or protection against them, no longer have any say over what becomes of the body. 

“It doesn’t make sense that if you’re accused of murdering your spouse, you get control over their body and the funeral arrangements,” he said.

If passed in both houses, the new law would close a loophole in state health law that granted Stephen Shepherd — who pleaded guilty to the slaying and was sentenced in 2010 to 21 years in prison — sole rights to his victim’s remains.

“I think this is a very important piece of legislation,” Ranzenhofer said. “For the families who are affected by this it’s very, very important to bring justice and common sense to a system that has failed some families. Murderers not only take their loved ones but really kind of kill them a second time when they have control over the body.”

In Shepherd’s case, during the months of indecision following Constance’s murder, invoices piled up from the coroner’s office where her remains were being held, leaving her already distraught family in the lurch.

For months after his arrest for killing his wife with a knife inside their Sunset Terrace home, Stephen Shepherd refused to take any action to dispose of her remains.

Instead, days turned into weeks and months before Shepherd’s attorney eventually was granted control over the body, opting to bury her ashes at a Bhuddist temple hundreds of miles from Constance’s friends and family, near one of Stephen’s favorite fishing spots in the Adirondacks.

That was roughly three months after the slaying.

Ranzenhofer announced the pending Senate action on the bill at a Capitol news conference on Monday, where he was joined by Constance’s cousin Elaine O’Toole of Tonawanda and by Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly.

Ranzenhofer said the added clause came at the request of the Assembly, and that he is optimistic the body will pass the measure this year, before it must then be signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“This is a big step, because this is the proposal as requested by the Assembly, so I would expect that the Assembly will move forward with it,” Ranzenhofer said.

The lone dissenting vote against the bill came from Sen. Tom Duane, a Manhattan Democrat who also voted against the unamended version of the bill when it was first passed in February, 2012.

“It’s not unusual for him to vote against crime bills, but I cannot speak to why he voted against this particular piece of legislation,” Senate Republican Spokesman Mark Hansen said when asked what promoted the lone no vote.