Over the past decade, a number of “abuse of a corpse” cases in Texas have made headlines. Most notably in 2014, a husband and wife were arrested after eight decomposing bodies were found in their Fort Worth funeral home. They were accused of taking money from grieving families for funeral services but neglecting the bodies of the deceased. At the time, abuse of a corpse was still a Class A misdemeanor. As a result, prosecutors added a felony theft charge alleging the funeral home operator took money through a fraudulent promise to deliver a human corpse for proper burial and cremation. The theft case was overturned on appeal and the accused was acquitted on that charge. Surprised that the funeral owners did not face more severe punishment, family members of the deceased turned to lawmakers. During the 85th legislative session, they passed a law that boosted the penalties for abusing a dead body from a misdemeanor to a felony.
What is Abuse of a Corpse in Texas?
Under Texas law, a person who disturbs or damages a human corpse is subject to prosecution. It is also a criminal offense to conceal a body knowing it to be illegally buried or to buy or sell a human corpse. According to Section 42.08 of Texas Penal Code, a person commits the offense of abuse of a corpse if he or she, without legal authority, knowingly:
- disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects, in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse;
- conceals a human corpse knowing it to be illegally disinterred;
- sells or buys a human corpse or in any way traffics in a human corpse
- transmits or conveys, or procures to be transmitted or conveyed, a human corpse to a place outside the state; or
- vandalizes, damages, or treats in an offensive manner the space in which a human corpse has been interred or otherwise permanently laid to rest.
- An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor
- In this section, “human corpse” includes:
- Any portion of a human corpse; or
- The cremated remains of a human corpse; or
- Any portion of the cremated remains of a human corpse
- If conduct constituting an offense under this section also constitutes an offense under another section of this code, the actor may be prosecuted under either section or both sections.
- It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the actor:
- As a member or agent of a cemetery organization, removed or damaged anything that had been placed in or on any portion of the organization’s cemetery in violation of the rules of the organization;
- Removed anything:
- Placed in the cemetery in violation of the rules of the cemetery organization; or
- Placed in the cemetery by or with the cemetery organization’s consent but that, in the organization’s judgment, had become wrecked, unsightly, or dilapidated
- In this section, “cemetery” and “cemetery organization” have the meaning assigned by Section 711.001, Health and Safety Code
What is the punishment for abuse of a corpse?
In the spring of 2017, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 524 making the offense of abuse of a corpse a state jail felony, punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility and up to a $10,000 fine. Originally, the offense was a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4000 fine. Unlike time served in the county jail or prison, state jail sentences must be served day for day.
Senate Bill 524 was sponsored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. It was passed on May 29, 2017, and will take effect on September 1, 2017.
Real Examples of Texas Abuse of Corpse Cases
Examples of abuse of corpse cases are actually more common than you think. Here’s a look at some real Texas cases, including one out of Fort Worth that was instrumental in changing the law:
- On July 15, 2014, authorities were alerted to a pungent smell coming from a Fort Worth funeral home. Investigators found several bodies that had not been embalmed or refrigerated and were in various stages of decomposition. The owners of the funeral home, a husband and wife, were charged and convicted of abuse of corpse and theft, stemming from allegations they took money from grieving families for funeral services, but then neglected bodies of the deceased. The husband’s theft conviction was later reversed by an appeals court for insufficient of evidence, however. Prosecutors are appealing that decision.
- A Galveston man was charged with two counts of abuse of a corpse in 2000 after police found he had been living in a house with his parents’ corpses. He allegedly had been living off their retirement benefits and social security checks. He was later charged and convicted of murder after evidence revealed his parents had been strangled.
- A couple was arrested in Bryan in May 2017 after authorities said they stole a hearse parked outside a convenience store and later dumped the body in the back in a ditch. A funeral home employee had left the vehicle unattended with the keys inside. The couple was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and the female was also charged with abuse of a corpse.
- In August 2015, a funeral owner in Sherman was arrested on two counts of abuse of a corpse after authorities discovered two bodies in his facility that were not being stored properly. It was also later discovered that the man was never licensed by the State Commission and had been misrepresenting himself as a funeral director.
- In another hugely high profile case out of Fort Worth in the mid-2000, the former owner of a cadaver transportation company was charged with three counts of abuse of corpse after three decomposing bodies were found inside his repossessed van after it was towed from his home. His punishment? The judge ordered him to publicly apologize for neglecting the bodies on a highway billboard that read in part, “I should treat the deceased in my care with dignity and respect.”
If you or a loved one are facing charges of abuse of a corpse you will need experienced lawyer to help you navigate this difficult time. We can help. Call today for a complimentary strategy session. During this call we will:
- Discuss the facts of your case;
- Discuss the legal issues involved, including the direct and collateral consequences of the allegation; and
- Discuss the defenses that apply to your plan and in general terms discuss our approach to your case.
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Also published on Medium.