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Leaving human remains to rot in the woods may not be against Georgia law, legal experts say, unless the person who dumped them had promised to dispose of them properly. If the Georgia Code contains a means of prosecuting those who have been directors of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., it likely would be theft statutes, not any provision against mistreating human remains. District attorneys and other legal experts say the state criminal code doesn’t seem to anticipate what happened at the Walker County, Ga., crematory. The directors of the crematory may have dumped as many as 300 bodies at the site rather than incinerating them and returning their remains to their families, according to state and local investigators. Coweta County, Ga., District Attorney Peter J. Skandalakis says the unusual nature of the case might require some creative prosecution. “I just don’t think the Legislature ever envisioned anybody stacking corpses like cordwood out in a field,” he says. “There’s just no code section directly on point.” Licensed mortuaries can lose their licenses if they mistreat corpses, according to the Georgia Code, but Tri-State wasn’t required to be licensed since it didn’t deal directly with the public. Rather, Tri-State worked only with funeral homes, which sent the deceased to the crematory for incineration. The Georgia Code also establishes penalties for digging up a person’s remains or moving a corpse that has been buried. However, it says nothing about dumping a body rather than cremating it or providing burial. “This is a unique case,” Skandalakis says. “I’ve never encountered anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Police in Walker County have charged Ray Brent Marsh, 28, a director of the crematory, with 16 counts of theft by deception, for accepting payment to cremate bodies that he dumped. As of Monday afternoon, investigators had discovered 130 bodies on the crematory’s site. Some of the remains may have been there up to 20 years. An individual conviction of theft by deception carries a maximum of five years in prison. Hall County, Ga., District Attorney Lydia J. Sartain says multiple theft charges may be the only way to prosecute Marsh. “That might be the best way to go about it, because you could just load them [the charges] up,” she says. Mark A. Kadish, a professor of law at Georgia State University, says that, in the absence of any criminal law on the mutilation or desecration of human remains, the theft statutes make the most sense for any prosecutions. “Theft of services, theft by deception, all of those theft statutes would be possibilities,” he says. However, those laws have a five-year statute of limitations, Kadish notes. Russ Willard, spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker, declined comment on what statute might be the most effective in prosecuting the directors of the crematory. He says Walker County District Attorney Herbert E. “Buzz” Franklin knows best how to go about the job. Willard says the state attorney general is involved in the case only in its role as adviser to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Emergency Management Authority. “We are advising our clients involved in this tragedy as the need arises,” he says. That role does not include any prosecutorial work, Willard says. And so far, he says, the attorney general’s office has not been asked for its advice in possible criminal actions against the crematory and its directors. POSSIBLE CIVIL ACTIONS Although the state can’t go after Tri-State for neglecting human remains, the families of those whose remains were mistreated might have a civil cause of action, Kadish says. “There are all kinds of things a creative lawyer could come up with,” he says. Those areas might include fraud and deceit, breach of contract, or a tort involving “some civil wrong in the way [Marsh] handled the body after death,” Kadish says. But Fayetteville, Ga., lawyer Richard D. Hobbs says bringing such a complaint under tort law might be tricky for the plaintiffs. One of the problems, he says, is determining the value of a human corpse; it is at once worthless and invaluable. “What kind of claim do they have?” he says. “Fraud, certainly. Contract, they might sue them under contract law.” However, if the plaintiffs stray too far from those areas, Hobbs says, the law is thinner. Hobbs is handling a case in which a funeral home botched the funeral of Cambodian immigrant Khin Tep, dooming him to a horrible rebirth, according to Buddhist theology. He brought the suit on behalf of Tep’s family, arguing that survivors should have a cause of action if someone denies them proper observance of funeral rites. Denial of closure, Hobbs calls it. “When dealing with the potential injury and damages that a family might suffer because of someone’s negligence in this area, the standard of care should be tremendously high,” he says. Kadish says that after this incident, he expects to see activity in the Legislature on the issue of properly treating human remains. “If there’s nothing about desecration of bodies in the code already, you’ll see it after this,” he says. By late afternoon Monday, state Rep. Michael Snow, D-Chickamauga, had proposed a bill prohibiting abuse or abandonment of human remains, and subjecting crematories to many of the same state regulations as funeral homes. Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes’ spokeswoman Joselyn Baker says the governor supports Snow’s legislation.

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