DOVER, Del. — A Delaware judge has refused to dismiss corpse abuse charges against a former state forensic investigator accused of improperly handling two bodies on separate occasions.
The judge rejected defense arguments that the indictment against James Schaeffer-Patton should be dismissed because statutory language regarding abuse of a corpse is vague and “offends due process.” Judge Sheldon Rennie noted that the circumstances involved in a forensic investigator’s job may support a valid defense but do not render the law itself void.
“The statute makes no exception for forensic investigators or their transporting of bodies, and the court will not create one here,” he wrote in last week’s ruling.
Prosecutors allege that after a 2018 suicide by hanging in a New Castle County home, Patton used the ligature tied around the dead person’s neck to drag the body out of a bedroom and down a hallway.
Authorities also allege that after a fatal drug overdose in Newark in 2019, Patton dragged the body bag down three flights of stairs, allowing the victim’s head to hit each stair on the way down. Officers at the scene reported “loud repetitive thuds,” according to a police affidavit.
Abusing a corpse is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison but a presumptive sentence of probation. Delaware’s criminal code states that a person is guilty of the offense if one treats a corpse in a way that a reasonable person knows would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”
Defense attorney Eugene Maurer Jr. argued in the motion to dismiss that “ordinary” is a subjective term, and that “ordinary family sensibilities” is extremely vague.
Rennie could not find any Delaware case law on that issue, but he noted that a Pennsylvania law using “ordinary family sensibilities” has withstood a court challenge. An Ohio appeals court similarly upheld a statute using the term “reasonable community sensibilities.” That court said such language is “commonly understood by people of common intelligence.”
Maurer also argued that the vagueness in Delaware’s law makes a defendant’s state of mind irrelevant and instead relies on an objective “reasonable person” standard.
The judge suggested that that standard is appropriate.
“It does not vary either to exculpate on the basis of the actor’s unusual callousness or to condemn for outraging an excessively delicate relative of the deceased,” Rennie wrote, citing the Model Penal Code.