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New York to bar murderous spouses from making funeral arrangements

By Neale Gulley

BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - New York state closed a legal loophole on Thursday that had allowed people accused of murdering their spouses the sole rights to their victims' remains.

In a domestic violence bill signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a spouse charged with murder or one who was under a restraining order may no longer claim authority over what happens to the victim's body.

The law, which takes effect on November 24, addresses situations such as that of Constance Shepherd, who was murdered in 2009. Her husband, Stephen Shepherd, who was later convicted of her killing, was left to decide what would become of her remains.

"It was a travesty. He abused her during her life and continued to abuse her even in death," said Elaine O'Toole, the slain woman's cousin.

For months after his trial, she said Shepherd refused to make funeral arrangements, and invoices from the coroner's office, where the body was being kept, piled up, she said.

Eventually, Stephen Shepherd's attorney was granted control of the body and opted to bury her ashes in the Adirondack Mountains, near one of Stephen Shepherd's favorite fishing spots, she said.

"There was no closure for us. Absolutely none," O'Toole said, adding that visiting the site would be emotionally difficult.

Republican state Senator Michael Ranzenhofer, who sponsored the legislation after O'Toole approached him, pointed to other instances where the loophole had caused added grief for families.

Another such case was the 2009 beheading of Aasiya Hassan in Orchard Park, New York, by her husband Muzzammil Hassan, inside a cable television studio the couple founded to promote understanding of his Muslim culture.

Hassan was found guilty of her murder, which took place six days after she filed for divorce.

"It just doesn't make sense that if you're accused of murdering your spouse that you get control over their body and funeral arrangements," Ranzenhofer said. "It's outrageous when you really think about it."

The new law also includes a provision to allow judges to consider what danger domestic abusers might pose to their spouses when determining whether to grant bail. Judges were previously limited to consider only issues such as flight risk.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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