What Are the Penalties for Desecrating the Dead?
When you hear the phrase “desecrating the dead,” it probably conjures images of spooky graveyards and crime TV. However, desecrating the dead is a more common crime than you might think. Desecrating the dead or abuse of a corpse can be a crime in and of itself, or it can be charged along with other offenses.
Abuse of a corpse or desecrating the dead can range from an individual mistakenly burying a loved one improperly, a funeral home mishandling corpses, or an accused murderer burning their victim’s body. No matter the circumstances, these charges carry steep penalties and awful stigma. Because desecrating the dead is considered to be particularly egregious behavior, these incidents often make headlines around the country. New Mexico is no different.
What Is Abuse of a Corpse in New Mexico?
In New Mexico, there are generally three criminal offenses someone can be charged with relating to abuse of a corpse or desecrating the dead.
Disturbing a Marked Burial Ground
Under New Mexico law, disturbing a marked burial ground consists of knowingly and willfully disturbing or removing the remains or any material items associated with the grave. It is also unlawful to knowingly and intentionally procure or employ any other person to disturb or remove the remains.
Disturbing a marked burial ground is a fourth-degree felony. Upon conviction, a defendant will face a fine of up to $5,000, up to 18 months in prison, or both.
Tampering with Evidence
One of the most common charges relating to desecrating the dead or abusing a corpse is tampering with evidence. Many people do not initially realize that a dead body is often evidence of a crime. For instance, a murder victim’s body is evidence of the homicide. If the accused tampers with the body (e.g., burning or dismembering it), they can face charges of tampering with evidence for desecrating the body.
Under New Mexico law, tampering with evidence consists of destroying, changing, hiding, placing, or fabricating any physical evidence with the intent to prevent the apprehension, prosecution, or conviction of any person or to throw suspicion of the commission of a crime upon another.
The potential penalty for tampering with evidence depends upon the underlying crime.
The tampering with evidence offense is charged and punished as follows:
- If tampering with evidence is committed relating to a capital, first, or second-degree felony, the person who committed the tampering is guilty of a third-degree felony;
- If someone tampers with evidence relating to a third or a fourth-degree felony, the person committing the tampering is guilty of a fourth-degree felony;
- If someone tampers with evidence concerning a misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor, the person committing the tampering is guilty of a petty misdemeanor; and
- If the highest crime for which tampering with evidence is committed is indeterminate, the person committing tampering with evidence is guilty of a fourth-degree felony.
The State charges you according to the highest level of crime for which you tampered with evidence. For example, suppose you tampered with evidence in a case that involves a murder and a petit theft. Further, suppose the murder is a first-degree felony, and the petit theft is a misdemeanor. In this case, you would be charged according to the first-degree felony, as it is the highest crime involved. Understanding the charges you are, or may face, can be confusing. We are happy to answer your questions. Contact us today to discuss what to expect.
In New Mexico, defacing tombs consists of either:
- Intentionally defacing, breaking, destroying, or removing any tomb, monument, or gravestone erected to any deceased person or any memento, memorial, or marker upon any place of burial of any human being or any ornamental plant, tree, or shrub appertaining to the site of the burial of any human being; or
- Intentionally marking, defacing, injuring, destroying, or removing any fence, post, rail, or wall of any cemetery or graveyard or erected within any cemetery or graveyard or any marker, the memorial or funerary object upon any place of burial of any human being.
Defacing a tomb is a misdemeanor offense. A conviction may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both.
Charges for Desecrating the Dead in the News
It’s not every day that you read a headline relating to desecrating the dead, but when you do, you usually remember it.
Sexual Assault After Death
In 2021, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld a conviction for first-degree murder and the rape of a deceased victim. The unanimous decision set a new precedent in the state, concluding that a murder victim does not need to be alive at the time of the rape for the defendant to be convicted of criminal sexual penetration. Specifically, in this case, the defendant murdered the victim and sexually assaulted her dead body. The defendant was convicted but subsequently appealed, arguing that New Mexico law required the sexual assault victim to be alive at the time of the rape. The New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed with the defense.
The 2021 case was the first instance of the New Mexico Supreme Court addressing this legal issue. The court reasoned that the law ensures the dead are afforded due respect and dignity. The court went so far as to indicate that the legislature should enact laws to protect the deceased from such crimes.
Funeral Home Abuse of Corpse
They may not be daily headlines, but now and then, you will hear of funeral home workers and directors desecrating the dead. If a funeral home employee, director, or owner desecrates the dead or abuses a corpse, they can face criminal and civil liability.
One headline in New Mexico, in particular, involved a case where a funeral home broke the legs of a tall man’s body so he could fit into a smaller coffin, likely to save money.
The deceased’s family filed a lawsuit for allegedly mutilating their loved one’s corpse and ignoring family instructions for a Jewish burial. These types of cases often result in criminal charges.
New Mexico Criminal Defense Attorneys
Contact the attorneys at the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices today if you have been or believe you will be charged with desecrating the dead, abuse of a corpse, or tampering with evidence. For over 20 years, our attorneys have advocated for individuals accused of crimes. We know our way around the criminal justice system. Let us get to work for you.