Tonawanda News

May 27, 2011

Bill aims to correct ‘outrageous’ loophole

By Neale Gulley
The Tonawanda News

— — For months after Constance Shepherd was brutally murdered by her husband in 2009, her family endured another torment almost equal to her tragic death.

“He would not release the body to anybody,” her cousin, Elaine O’Toole, said recalling the horrible aftermath two years ago, after Stephen Shepherd, 58, slashed his wife’s throat inside their Sunset Terrace home.

“Besides the tragedy of my cousin being brutally murdered, the murderer who was so abusive to her during her lifetime and kept her from us during her life was now keeping her from us even in death,” O’Toole recalled.

That’s because a loophole in state law granted Stephen Shepherd — who pleaded guilty to the slaying and was sentenced last August to 21 years in prison — sole rights to her remains.

O’Toole said instead of properly mourning her horrific death, she and other relatives waited in agony as Stephen’s attorney eventually was granted control over the body, opting to bury her ashes at a Bhuddist temple hundreds of miles away, near one of Stephen’s favorite fishing spots in the Adirondacks, she said.

And that was in August or September, she said, roughly three months after the slaying, though it’s hard to remember. She didn’t attend.

“Will I ever visit my cousin’s grave? I don’t think that will be possible. So again my family is denied from seeing her,” she said.

During the months of indecision following Constance’s murder, as bills from the coroner’s office where her remains were being held piled up, O’Toole, who is also from Tonawanda, contacted State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer of Amherst. A bill he wrote to correct the law recently passed the state Senate by a vote of 59  to 1.

“It just doesn’t makes sense that if you’re accused of murdering your spouse that you get control over their body and the funeral arrangements,” Ranzenhofer said. “It’s just outrageous when you really think about it.”

A similar predicament befell family members of Aasiya Hassan, whose husband Mo Hassan was sentenced in March for beheading the mother of three children inside an Orchard Park television studio the two ran.

“I cannot fathom that this has gone on,” O’Toole said. “That your husband or your spouse has the right to bury you, even if they kill you. I mean, no one came across this problem?”

Ranzenhofer said the standalone legislation is likely to pass in the Assembly, and says that if a person is the subject of an order of protection or has been charged with a spouse’s death, they are not eligible to decide what happens to the body.

“It corrects a problem that is very real in a number of instances,” Ranzenhofer said.

In the case of Constance Shepherd, despite pressure from the Erie County District Attorney’s office and other agencies, O’Toole said the law provided no way around the problem.

“Because she had no next of kin, her house was being foreclosed on, she had no money, I called the Victim’s Assistance Bureau fund to help with her burial. Because he wouldn’t release her body the coroner’s office charged every day. So any money the state would give went there.”

The lone dissenting vote against Ranzenhofer’s bill came from Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan), Ranzenhofer said, though he wasn’t aware of his colleague’s issue with the bill that passed May 3.

Ranzenhofer, a lawyer by trade, couldn’t say why the law as written took so long to come to the forefront.

“It was one of those things, it probably hadn’t been a problem because, I imagine, in the past, even an alleged murderer allowed for proper burial to occur,” he said. “(Shepherd) picked up on this loophole.”

O’Toole said helping others avoid a similar experience adds much comfort to her ordeal and meaning to her cousin’s death.

“My whole thing is if you’re a citizen and you see something that’s wrong, things can be changed,” she said. “Could you imagine if that was your child? Could you imagine if that was your mother?”