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What Treatment of a Corpse will "Outrage Ordinary Family Sensibilities"?

On October 1, 2014, Goldia Massey of Cynthiana, Kentucky was reported missing by her son.  She was later determined to have died “on or about” September 21, 2014.  Upon her death, her body was sawed to pieces and dumped into the Kentucky River.  In October 2014, Massey’s arm was found along the river in Henry County and her torso was found that December along the river in Jessamine County.

In August 2016, the jury took less than three hours to find Paris Charles, a 60 year old handyman and former boyfriend of Massey, guilty of her murder and abuse of her corpse.  While sentencing will take place later this week, the jury recommended a 35-year sentence for murder and a $500 fine for abuse of a corpse.

Kentucky Statute §525.120 dictates that a person commits the crime of abuse of corpse when “he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  It is a Class A misdemeanor unless the abuse involves sexual intercourse or “deliberate failure to prepare, bury, or cremate a corpse” after entering into a contract to do so.  In these cases, the abuse will be categorized as a Class D felony.

The case of Golida Massey clearly does not fall into the felony provision of the statute; there is no evidence of sexual activity with her corpse and the abuse did not happen as a result of a breach of contract.  Charles was convicted under the misdemeanor provision of the statute, which prohibits any treatment “that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  What is an ordinary family sensibility?

While most will likely agree that sawing a corpse to pieces would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities,” this provision is extremely ambiguous.  America is composed of many religions and types of families.  Is there really an “ordinary family” that can be used to judge inappropriate treatment of human remains?

Had Massey's body been sawed up in another state, the criminal statute might have more definitively prohibited the behavior.  For example, some states prohibit “mutilation” of a corpse.  Illinois goes further and specifically defines the crime of dismembering a corpse as when an individual “knowingly dismembers, severs, separates, dissects, or mutilates any body part of a deceased’s body.”

Kentucky, however, is among many states that define abuse of a corpse only in terms of what would offend an ordinary family’s sensibilities.  While most jurors will likely consider sawing up your girlfriend’s body to offend ordinary sensibilities, what will happen when a defendant commits a slightly more subtle injustice to his girlfriend’s corpse?  Will ambiguous state statutes let him slip away unpunished?  What will happen when grieving loved ones perform a unique ritual as part of a religious tradition?  Will ambiguous state statutes criminalize their grief?  What really is an "ordinary family"?

Lauren Stovall

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