Abuse of a Corpse in Texas

James Scandirito Senior, 74, was reported missing on April 1st, 2018. His son, James Scandirito Junior, said that he last saw his father the previous night. It turns out that Junior actually dismembered his father and hid his body. Was it murder or panic?

Senior’s dismembered remains were discovered at a local golf course a few after he was reported missing. The investigation eventually revealed that Junior dismembered his father and disposed of the body in the golf course, and attempted to withdraw money from his father’s bank account. Junior, a law school graduate, was charged with murdering his father. He was also charged with abusing a human corpse. According to the prosecution, Junior killed his father and disposed of the body so he could steal his father’s money. The defense did not dispute that Junior cut up his father, but said that Senior had a heart attack and died. Junior merely panicked and hid the body. In March, the Florida Jury acquitted him of Murder, but convicted him of abusing his corpse. Sentencing was delayed until last week.

Friday afternoon, the Court handed Junior the maximum sentence for that conviction under Florid law, 15 years.

While watching the sentencing phase and discussing the case on the Law and Crime Network, we talked about the role of a “victim impact statement” in sentencing, and the purpose of our adversarial system. We’ll save for another day a discussion on both of these topics.

For now though, let’s talk about what might have happened if this crime were committed in Texas. This case could have been prosecuted under two different theories. First, under 42.08 of the penal code, abuse of a corpse requires proof that the person charged “disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse.” This is a state jail felony offense, meaning a person convicted could be sentenced from 180 days to 2 years confinement in the state jail.

The other  potential offense is under Section 37.09, called Tampering with Physical Evidence. A conviction requires proof that the person, knowing that an investigation is pending or in the process, “alters, destroys, or conceals a thing with intent to impair its availability as evidence.” If the “thing” is a human corpse, a person convicted faces between 2 and 20 years confinement in the penitentiary. The decision about which charge to pursue belongs to the District Attorney.

If convicted of either charge, a Judge or a Jury would assess punishment.

For jurors, Article 37.07 of the Code of Criminal Procedure says that anything relevant would be admissible in that phase of the trial, including “the prior criminal record of the defendant, his general reputation, his character,” and any other bad act that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. By way of the same rule, the Defense can put on testimony that might shed light on a defendant’s good character, and friends and family could vouch for him. In short, the defense can put on anything that mitigates punishment or lessens the moral culpability of the crime. With that as the guide, jurors must unanimously agree on a sentence within that range. If the court were assessing punishment, the same principles apply.

Finally, a small point about punishment in Texas criminal cases. If you are wondering who elects whether the judge or a jury hands down punishment, the decision lies solely with the defendant. The decision must be made prior to trial, but ultimately the Defendant makes the call.

For more information on the Scandarito case, you can watch Junior’s testimony during the trial wherein he walks jurors through the steps he took in order to accomplish his crime. The testimony is unforgettable. You can watch the sentencing phase here, and watch any portion of the trial on this playlist.