By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In an opinion that draws from Mark Twain and Sophocles, the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a state law that makes abandonment of a corpse a felony.
The 7-0 decision overrules Cape Girardeau County Associate Circuit Court Judge Gary A. Kamp's finding that the law is unconstitutionally vague.
James E. Bratina of Jackson, Mo., was charged with the crime, a class D felony, after allegedly failing to immediately report finding his wife dead, but Kamp dismissed the count.
County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said the charge will automatically be reinstated and the prosecution of Bratina will proceed.
"What we've been saying all along is it is for a jury to decide whether this person committed a crime," Swingle said. "It was not a case where the statute was unconstitutionally void for vagueness."
Authorities say that at approximately 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2001, Bratina discovered his wife, Suyapa Bratina, dead. Instead of immediately calling police, he went to work, leaving their 3-year-old daughter alone with her mother's corpse until he returned at around 10 a.m. and called 911.
Suyapa Bratina died of a drug and alcohol overdose. Her husband isn't accused of playing a role in her death.
Defense attorney Stephen C. Wilson of Cape Girardeau said he asked the court, if it chose not to uphold Kamp, to clarify that "leaving" a corpse must mean the same thing as "abandoning" one under the statute to be a violation of the law. The court agreed the terms are linked, which could make it easier for Wilson to prove to a jury that Bratina didn't violate the law.
"It is a partial victory," Wilson said.
In writing for the court, Judge Michael A. Wolff cited the scene from Mark Twain's novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in which Huck and his traveling companion, Jim, find a dead body in a house. After making a "good haul" of belongings left in the house, they proceed with their business.
"If Huck Finn and his friend Jim were real 21st century Missourians, might they be facing a D felony for abandonment of a corpse?" Wolff wrote. "They, after all, did 'leave' a corpse that they had found."
The opinion states that while a stranger who stumbles across a corpse and doesn't report it may or may not be committing a crime, Bratina wasn't a bystander because the body in this case was that of his wife. The court said that survivors of a deceased family member "assume the duty of properly caring for the body."
Wolff highlighted that obligation with a reference to the classical Greek tragedy "Antigone" by Sophocles. In that work, Antigone ensures her brother, Oedipus, is given a proper burial in defiance of the king, Wolff wrote, "because she understands the importance of respecting the dead."
"Moreover, science reinforces this common understanding: Proper disposition of human remains is necessary to maintaining the public health," Wolf wrote.
During oral arguments on April 4, the judges were tough in questioning former Cape Girardeau County assistant prosecutor Lora E. Cooper as to the identity of the "proper law enforcement officials" the law says must be notified of a death. Chief Justice Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. suggested the county coroner would be the logical choice. However, the court ruled the phrase in question has a plain meaning and isn't unconstitutionally vague.
Because Bratina did eventually notify authorities of his wife's death, the court said that he may not have broken the law.
"The fact that Bratina returned to the apartment some three to four hours later may negate the conclusion that he intended to abandon the body of his wife," Wolff wrote. "... The jury will determine whether Bratina is guilty or not based on all the facts and circumstances of the case."
If convicted of the felony, Bratina could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. For leaving his daughter alone with the body, Bratina is also charged with child endangerment in the second degree, a class A misdemeanor punishable by a up to a year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.