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State bill would deny killer control of victim burial

The State Senate is expected to again pass legislation closing a loophole that gave a Town of Tonawanda man control of the remains of his wife after nearly beheading her when he killed her in 2009.

The measure has been pushed by relatives of Constance Shepherd, whose husband, Stephen, was sentenced to 21 years in prison in her death. The husband, over objections from some family members, was able to have his slain wife's remains buried in the Catskills, a site her family opposed.

The relatives called the husband's action "intentionally disrespectful," according to a memo in support of the bill now pending in both legislative houses.

The bill, which has been kicking around the Capitol since 2010, passed the Senate last year and died in the Assembly. It again passed the Senate in February and was facing inaction in the Assembly once more, before some amendments were made.

The Senate was poised to pass the amended bill this week. It is uncertain whether the changes to the bill will be enough to satisfy the Assembly, where it is sponsored by Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat.

The legislation would block decisions over control of a body's remains by individuals who were subject to an order of protection at the time of death or had been arrested or charged in any action "causally related to the death of the decedent."

A court, though, could waive the restriction if an "inappropriate delay" in disposing of the body was created.

Schimminger said the court provision was added following Assembly concerns over new problems that could arise in cases in which a spouse is accused, but later found not guilty, in a murder case.

"I am cautiously optimistic we will get it passed in its amended form this year," Schimminger said.

The state's public health law lays out a series of steps for disposing of a body, which in the Shepherd case, put the husband in the front of the line in deciding how his slain wife's remains would be disposed of.

Ray Eigen Ball, coordinator of a Buffalo-area Buddhist group, said Constance Shepherd -- who he said was known as "Anne" to her friends -- was buried on Mount Tremper in the Catskills, on the grounds of a monastery that she had frequented as a Buddhist follower.

"Her husband followed through on what she would have wanted," said Ball, adding that he was entrusted with her cremated remains for the ceremony in the Catskills. "She frequented the place, she loved it, and it was the most appropriate place for her to be buried."

Ball, coordinator of the Buffalo Dharma Community, said that a number of friends from Buffalo attended the ceremony and that family members had been invited but did not attend. He said some of her family members wanted her buried in a Catholic cemetery.

John Jordan, a Buffalo lawyer who represented Stephen Shepherd in the case, said the couple were both practicing Buddhists and that her body was released to an attorney who was also her friend. He said his client, now in prison, indicated it would have been his dead wife's wish to be buried in the Nirvana Forest Cemetery at the Zen Mountain Monastery on Mount Tremper.

In November 2009, Shepherd, 59, who was originally charged with murder, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the death of his 49-year-old wife in their Sunset Terrace home, which the couple had lost just days earlier through foreclosure, The Buffalo News reported at the time. The husband had worked as an HSBC bank fraud investigator.

He is not eligible for parole until after serving 18 years of the 21-year prison sentence.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.