Mess with a dead body to obstruct an investigation and you would get slapped with a felony, if Jerry Sonnenberg’s new bill passes.
State law doesn’t distinguish between covering up evidence by tampering with physical objects — such as wiping fingerprints off a coffee mug — and destroying a corpse.
There should be a higher penalty when tampering applies to a human body, said Sonnenberg and several witnesses who testified last week on the bill, which would create a sliding scale of punishments based on the seriousness of the underlying crime being covered up.
In a committee hearing on the bill, families of the missing and murdered talked to lawmakers about justice denied.
Take the case of Jesse James Hanson-Colburn. In 2014, he was killed by an acquaintance, Kevin Dale Maxwell, according to Jesse’s mother, Jeanne Hanson-Colburn. His body was dumped into the San Juan River and discovered by hikers four days later.
Maxwell was charged with second-degree murder, but those charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Maxwell claimed he killed Jesse in self-defense, although he never told law enforcement or search-and-rescue personnel where he had stashed the body. Maxwell was later convicted on a tampering charge and served 10 months.
“Tampering with a body needs to reflect the seriousness of the crime itself,” said Hanson-Colburn’s aunt, Jessica.
A representative of the Criminal Defense Bar Association opposed the bill, saying existing laws are sufficient.
Democrats on the Republican-dominated committee also had concerns about the bill, particularly the sliding scale penalties. Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat, told The Colorado Independent she would prefer the law contain one penalty, such as making the crime a class 4 felony, which carries a sentence of two to six years and a fine of up to $500,000.
The bill passed on a 3-2 vote and was sent to Senate Appropriations, because it carries a cost to the state for lengthier incarceration. That cost has not yet been determined.
Aguilar later said she hated to vote against the bill in front of the families who attended the Feb. 3 hearing, but said the measure needed more work. She and Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat who cast the other “no” vote, said they will work out a compromise on the penalty with Sonnenberg.
Sonnenberg plans to work with Democrats to give the bill a better chance of passing the Democrat-led House.
“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said.
Rusty Clark, Creative Commons, Flickr.