Abuse of Corpse

Wisconsin "Hidden Corpse" Case

In Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, 46-year-old Robert Diamentis has entered a plea deal in a case that involved concealing the corpse of his brother.

Earlier this year, on May 2, Diamentis’ brother was found in a plastic container at their shared residence.  Diamentis’ brother had been ill and bed-ridden, and Diamentis was supposedly serving as his brother’s full time caregiver.  According to court reports, the dead body had been hidden in the house for “several months because [Diamentis] didn’t want people to think he was neglecting his brother.” 

Diamentis was originally charged with “hiding a corpse, obstructing an officer, failing to report a death in unusual circumstances,” and “negligently subjecting an individual at risk to abuse causing death.”  In accordance with his plea agreement, Diamentis pled guilty to the charge of “negligently subjecting an individual at risk to abuse causing death” and his other charges were dismissed by the court.  Prior to entering this plea, Diamentis had been found competent to stand trial.

In Wisconsin, there are specific laws mandating when an individual has an affirmative duty to report the death of another individual.   Wisconsin Statute §979.01 requires that “…persons having knowledge of the death of any person who has died under any of the following circumstances, shall immediately report the death to the sheriff, police chief, or medical examiner or coroner of the county where the death took place…”  Included in the first subsection of this statute are “All deaths in which there are unexplained, unusual or suspicious circumstances.”  A person found in violation of this statute could be fined up to $1,000 or imprisoned up to 90 days.

Despite being originally charged with “hiding a corpse,” the facts in this case remain unclear to whether this charge could have been proved in court.  Wisconsin Statute §940.11 provides that (1) “Whoever mutilates, disfigures or dismembers a corpse, with intent to conceal a crime or avoid apprehension, prosecution or conviction for a crime, is guilty of a Class F felony.”  Alternatively, (2) “Whoever hides or buries a corpse, with intent to conceal a crime or avoid apprehension, prosecution or conviction for a crime … with intent to collect benefits under one of those sections, is guilty of a Class G felony.”  The law makes a distinction between someone “mutilating” a corpse and simply “hiding” a corpse, as was the case here with Diamentis.  It is clear that Diamentis did in fact hide his brother’s corpse to avoid detection, but it is unknown whether he did so with the intent to continue collecting state benefits.  If Diamentis was not collecting benefits on behalf of his brother, the state cannot charge the second offense.  Therefore, the state must make a case that Diamentis did in fact “mutilate” or “disfigure” his brother’s body by concealing it in a plastic container for several months.  Depending on the degree of decomposition, the state may have a viable argument that the brother’s corpse was adequately “disfigured” to pass scrutiny under this statute’s first section.  However, given the clear distinction in the statute’s language between “mutilating” and “hiding” a corpse, and the different felony levels ascribed to each offense, Diamentis should have been charged under §940.11 only if he was collecting benefits on behalf of his brother during the months he concealed his brother’s body.

Katie McAbee

Conspiracy to Commit Abuse of a Corpse—"Unusual in Some Regards"

In September 2015, Michael Lawrence Koch-Prosser pled guilty to charges of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree assault and first-degree conspiracy to commit abuse of a corpse. As stated by the Talent Police Chief Mike Moran, the charges are “unusual in some regards.” The unusual charge Moran is most likely referring to is conspiracy to commit abuse of a corpse. 

Oregon law states that “a person is guilty of criminal conspiracy if with the intent that conduct constituting a crime punishable as a felony or a Class A misdemeanor be performed, the person agrees with one or more persons to engage in or cause the performance of such conduct.” Oregon law provides “a person commits the crime of abuse of corpse in the first degree if the person (a) engages in sexual activity with a corpse or involving a corpse; or (b) dismembers, mutilates, cuts or strikes a corpse.” So what did Koch-Prosser do to be charged with this?

Koch-Prosser and Eric Vale Henshaw strategically planned an attack on the victim. They went to her house and asked to borrow a can of WD-40. Henshaw then hit her with an air soft pistol gun and Koch-Prosser stabbed her several times while Henshaw screamed, “kill her.” The victim was able to escape the house and call 911. Afterwards, the men went to the movies where they were arrested. In interviews with the police, Koch-Prosser admitted the plan was to kill the victim and then have sex with her corpse.  So, in other words, they did not successfully kill their victim, but because they planned to do so and then desecrate her remains, they were charged with conspiracy to commit abuse of a corpse.

In State v. Brewer, the court stated the parties must have formed an intent with each other to commit to a certain act. Here, Koch-Prosser and Henshaw planned the attack in advance and had a list of potential victims. Once the men agreed to have sex with a corpse, the state's position is that there was no need for proof of an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Koch-Prosser and Henshaw’s plan was to have sex with corpse. There was no intent to rape the victim while she was still living. Since the men agreed to engage in sexual activity with the corpse, it is a first degree crime. Abuse of corpse in a first degree is a Class B felony, therefore the act of trying to have sexual activities with a corpse is enough of a crime to establish conspiracy.

Koch-Prosser was sentenced to the recommended 10 years in prison. Henshaw awaits trial.

Sabrina Huffman

Girlfriend Takes "Revenge" on Frenemy's Corpse

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, 27-year-old Shaynna Sims has been charged with defiling the corpse of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend before a scheduled open casket viewing. Through calling forward twelve witnesses, prosecutors pieced together Sims’ alleged actions (Sims still asserts she is not guilty). Witnesses claim Sims began her crime through forming relationships with the deceased’s close friends and family. Under the pretense that she was a skilled makeup artist, Sims told the family she wanted to help prepare the body before the viewing. Once Sims secured this alone time with the corpse, she removed various body parts from the victim, including her breasts and a toe. The victim’s mother, Charlotte Wheeler, stated, “She had makeup and lipstick smeared all over her face; her hair was just all over the place.” Additionally, during the viewing, a very upset friend told the funeral director, someone “pulled a glob of hair” from the dead woman and threw it on the floor.

Sims’ crimes are heinous. As police note, Sims destroyed a corpse of a “frenemy.” Yet, the Oklahoma statute regarding desecration of a human corpse does not include Sims’ actions within its definition of corpse desecration. Instead, Oklahoma Statute, § 47-1161.1 reads:

 It is a felony to knowingly and willfully desecrate a human corpse for the purpose of tampering with the evidence of a crime; camouflaging the death of human being; disposing of a dead body; impeding or prohibiting the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime; altering, inhibiting or concealing the identification of a dead body, a crime victim, or a criminal offender; or disrupting, prohibiting or interfering with any law enforcement agency or the Office of the State Medical Examiner in detecting, investigating, examining, determining, identifying or processing a dead body, cause of death, the scene where a dead body is found, or any forensic examination or investigation relating to a dead body or a crime. The penalty for this crime is imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for a term not more than seven years, by a fine not exceeding $8,000.00, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Notably, the rule only incorporates those acts of desecration done for the purpose of interfering with an investigation or identification regarding the body. The rule makes no mention of hate crimes or senseless corpse vandalism. Thus, it is unlikely the family of the victim will be able to pursue litigation against Sims on the grounds of desecration of a corpse. In a case such as this one, where desecration of a corpse has clearly occurred for an unjust reason, § 47-1161.1 feels largely inadequate. Why have a law against the desecration of a corpse, when the law fails to correct a literal corpse desecration?

Instead, Sims’ crimes will likely only amount to a violation of Oklahoma Statute § 21-1161, governing the unlawful removal of a dead body. § 21-1161 explains, “No person shall remove any part of the dead body of a human being from any grave or other place where the same has been buried, or from any place where the same is deposited while awaiting burial, with intent to sell the same, or to dissect it without authority of law, or from malice or wantonness.” The punishment for such a violation is up to one year in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. Therefore, § 21-1161 provides a potential recourse for prosecutors taking up the charges against Sims.

Katie Ott

Funeral Parlor Corpse Slashing in Oklahoma

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a judge ruled that 27-year-old Shaynna Sims is competent to stand trial.  Sims is accused of “slashing” the corpse of her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend at the funeral parlor during the viewing.

After the girlfriend’s death, Sims was able to persuade the girlfriend’s family and friends to allow her to help prepare the body for the viewing by contributing her skills as a make-up artist.  Instead of the usual care given to bodies in funeral homes, this preparation resulted in a body with smeared makeup, messy hair, and a slashed face.  The victim’s breasts and one of her toes had also been removed.  The body parts were not found.

After mourners complained that a woman at the viewing had pulled a mass of hair from the body and tossed it onto the floor, funeral parlor employees looked into the case.  Police were immediately called, and Sims was arrested shortly after attending the viewing in the victim’s apartment.  Upon arrest, police said Sims had a knife with the victim’s hair on it.

Sims is charged with felony unauthorized removal of body parts from a body, larceny from a person, and other charges.  She has pleaded not guilty.

Despite being charged with a felony level Abuse of Corpse crime, the state may have a difficult time proving this felony charge as opposed to a lesser misdemeanor charge.  In Oklahoma, the “Unlawful Dissection” statute states that, “Every person who makes or procures to be made any dissection of the body of a human being, except by authority of law, or in pursuance of a permission given by the deceased, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”  Clearly there was no permission to mutilate the victim’s body, and so Sims could be found guilty of this crime.  Proving the felony level charge, however, becomes more difficult because the state must prove an element of “knowingly and willingly” with respect to six discrete purposes. Under this “Desecration of a Human Corpse” statute:

It is unlawful for any person to knowingly and willfully desecrate a human corpse for any purpose of:

  1. Tampering with the evidence of a crime;
  2. Camouflaging the death of human being;
  3. Disposing of a dead body;
  4. Impeding or prohibiting the detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime;
  5. Altering, inhibiting or concealing the identification of a dead body, a crime victim, or a criminal offender; or
  6. Disrupting, prohibiting or interfering with any law enforcement agency or the Office of the State Medical Examiner in detecting, investigating, examining, determining, identifying or processing a dead body, cause of death, the scene where a dead body is found, or any forensic examination or investigation relating to a dead body or a crime.

When analyzing the absurd facts of this case, none of these six purposes quite fit the crime committed here.  The purpose which seems to fit the best, and what Oklahoma will likely try to hinge its case on, is purpose number five, “altering, inhibiting, or concealing the identification of a dead body.”  However, in this case, the victim’s body was already processed for burial and at the funeral parlor – there were no identification issues at any point in time.  Although Sims did “slash” the victim’s body at the funeral parlor, her actions did not necessarily “inhibit” or “conceal” identification of the victim’s dead body.  Since there are no provisions in this statute for any purpose of corpse desecration relating to revenge or inflicting mental anguish, nor any “community outrage” catch-all provision, I do not think Sims should be convicted of this particular crime.

Katie McAbee

Does the Law Limit What You Can Do with Human Remains? Yes! Understanding Abuse of Corpse Laws

Although we haven't discussed abuse of corpse statutes in Funeral and Cemetery Law yet this semester, this week five students have written posts about the treatment of human remains and analyze whether that constitutes abuse of corpse in various states.

Section 250.10 of the Model Penal Code is entitled "Abuse of Corpse."  It provides that "[e]xcept as authorized by law, a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities commits a misdemeanor."  About a dozen states follow the Model Penal Code approach, but more states have more detailed statutes. Sometimes, but surprisingly, not always, abuse of corpse statutes specifically reference and prohibit necrophilia.

Brittany Colton discusses the unauthorized removal of the corpse of Julie Mott from a Texas funeral home in August and concludes that the removal violates Texas Penal Code § 42.08(a) which is triggered if a person "carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse."

Sabrina Huffman examines the discovery of 11 decomposing bodies in a Toledo, Ohio funeral home and the decision to charge the funeral director, Robert Tate, with abuse of corpse under Ohio Revised Code 2927.01. Unlike the Texas statute, Ohio follows the Model Penal Code approach to abuse of corpse, which simply refers to treatment that would "outrage reasonable community sensibilities" or "reasonable family sensibilities."

Katie McAbee discusses the same Ohio statute, this time in the context of an Ohio man who murdered his girlfriend and then stashed her remains in a closet before interring her in a shallow grave. McAbee and Huffman both refer to Ohio court decisions that conclude that the Ohio statute is not unconstitutionally vague, but McAbee questions those holdings and advocates for Ohio to abandon the Model Penal Code approach and adopt a more concrete statute like New Jersey's, which is triggered if a person "unlawfully disturbs, moves, or conceals human remains."

Katie Ott also discusses the Ohio abuse of corpse statute (seriously, what's going on in Ohio??) in the context of a funeral home which misplaced a body and then displayed the wrong set of remains at a viewing. The family has sued and Ott asks whether the funeral home's actions also violate the abuse of corpse statute.

Finally, Shawn Briggs-Seward illustrates how difficult it may be to determine "reasonable" community or family sensibilities as she examines two reported cases involving the cremated remains (cremains) of Keith Richards' father and Tupac Shakur. These cases are particularly interesting because they both death with cremains, not intact human remains. Briggs-Seward asks whether abuse of corpse statutes should apply in such cases.

These five blog posts demonstrate the continuing relevance of the little-known abuse of corpse statutes in American law. They also demonstrate the uncertainty regarding the application and enforcement of these statutes. All of the different formulations of the crime speak to the same idea—human remains should be treated with respect. But states vary significantly in terms of what that means.

Tanya Marsh

"Body Snatching" in Texas

Julie-mott4In August 2015, the remains of Julie Mott were removed by an unknown person or persons from a Texas funeral home shortly after the funeral concluded.  The article notes that “body snatching,” which was more common in the past, is the “technical term for a body stolen from a grave.”  It also asserts that bodies are frequently stolen for allografts, as an act of political protest, or for sex.  However, “body snatching” is the improper term to describe the situation here because body snatching is “the act or practice of robbing a grave to obtain a cadaver for dissection.” Although it is unknown whether the corpse will be dissected, the body was stolen from a funeral home, not from a grave, so it is technically not considered “body snatching.”   

Under Texas law, the individual who removed the corpse from the funeral home without authorization would likely be charged under Texas Penal Code § 42.08(a) "abuse of a corpse."  This statute provides that a:

person commits an offense if the person, without legal authority, knowingly: (1) disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects, in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse; (2) conceals a human corpse knowing it to be illegally disinterred; (3) sells or buys a human corpse or in any way traffics in a human corpse; (4) transmits or conveys, or procures to be transmitted or conveyed, a human corpse to a place outside the state; or (5) vandalizes, damages, or treats in an offensive manner the space in which a human corpse has been interred or otherwise permanently laid to rest.

Here, the individual who removed the corpse from the funeral home did not have legal authority and knowingly carried away the corpse.  Thus, the individual would likely be charged under Texas Penal Code § 42.08(a)(1)

Brittany Colton