I had a felony criminal case going to trial tomorrow. But, an unusual thing happened. The judge dismissed the cases on Friday by granting my motion to dismiss. This is an interesting case, in a macabre way.
My client, who was an EMT, was alleged to have taken a photograph of a deceased body – a suicide victim. That photograph was alleged to have been text messaged to his wife – another EMT. Additionally, the photograph was alleged to have been shown to other individuals. When authorities found out about these allegations, they wanted to prosecute. But there was a problem: in West Virginia it is not against the law to take photographs of deceased bodies. So here were the charges:
W. Va. Code § 61-8-14 provides:
If any person unlawfully disinter or displace a dead human body, or any part of a dead human body, which shall have been placed or deposited in any vault, mausoleum, or any temporary or permanent burial place . . . he shall be guilty of a felony, and, upon conviction, shall be confined in a state correctional facility for a determinate sentence of not more than five years.
Here were the state’s allegations as contained in the indictment:
The grand jurors of the State of West Virginia, in and for the body of the county of Greenbrier, upon their oaths present that, on or about April 20, 2012, in the said county of Greenbrier, CLIENT feloniously, unlawfully and intentionally disinterred or displaced a dead human body, or any part of a dead human body, placed or deposited in any vault, mausoleum or any temporary or permanent burial place. More specifically, on or about April 20, 2012, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, CLIENT, while working as a driver for the Funeral Home, transported the deceased body of VICTIM from Appalachian Regional Hospital in Summers County, West Virginia, to the Funeral Home in Monroe County, West Virginia. Furthermore, on said date, CLIENT, while en route as indicated above, removed the Identification Tag. Such act was against the peace and dignity of the State of West Virginia and is a violation of West Virginia Code § 61-8-14.
They also charged felony conspiracy to disinter, both against the client and his wife.
The obvious problem with the indictment was that, according to the statute, it did not allege a crime. We all know that the act being prosecuted is the taking of the photograph. However, in an act of legal acrobatics, they are technically prosecuting for the alleged removal of a body tag. We filed several motions to dismiss, and the motions were set for an evidentiary hearing. We subpoenaed the investigating officer, as well as the funeral home embalmer to testify.
The investigating officer testified that the embalmer told him that upon arrival at the funeral home, he observed the body still inside the client’s vehicle, and that the body tag was laying loosely on top of the body bag. However, the embalmer was the next witness. He testified that he never observed the body while it was still inside the vehicle, and that he had no recollection of the location of the body tag. Furthermore, he said that it was in the client’s job description to assist him by transporting the body inside the embalming room, and to remove the body bag, clothing, and the body tag itself (the removal of which the state was arguing was a felony offense). This is, of course, performed by first responders, as well as funeral home employees every day across the state, and it would be unfortunate to make them all felons.
The only West Virginia case law on the “disinterment” statute was State v. Duncan, and it involved a woman who dug up a murder victim from a shallow grave for the purpose of planting the body in a river so that it could be discovered by authorities. Apparently she had dumped the victim’s vehicle in the river, and then realized that if the body was not discovered it would look suspicious. So she was going to dump the body in the river so that it could be found. She apparently gave no thought to whether or not the bullet hole in the victim’s head would be at odds with her drowning set-up. Anyways, she was charged with “disinterment” since she was not the actual murderer. The WV Supreme Court held that the removal of a body from a shallow grave did qualify as a temporary or permanent burial due tot he fact that the body is actually covered with dirt, etc. The decision left no wiggle room for a prosecutor to argue that a body bag also qualifies as a temporary place of burial.
The Judge in our case discussed this case, and also discussed the fact that only next of kin have the right to “bury” somebody, and that transportation from the coroner’s office to the funeral home in a body bag, by non-family members cannot be considered “burial”. And criminal statutes are to be strictly construed. The word “burial”, at least in the dictionary, means “grave” or “tomb”. Therefore, a body bag, just isn’t a temporary place of burial – even where there is an unpopular defendant and public outcry for punishment. Even though I love to try jury trials, there is no better result than avoiding the possibility of conviction altogether with an outright dismissal of the case.