GLASGOW – On Tuesday, a bill cleared the Kentucky House of Representatives that bears the name of a Barren County woman who was murdered by Clark W. Smith in July 2016 and whose body was found in a container in the Green River in Hart County.
Kristen's Law, as it would become known, was sponsored as Senate Bill 155, by Sen. David Givens and had previously been approved by the Senate, is now set to go to Gov. Matt Bevin for him to sign before it becomes law.
The name is meant to honor the memory of Kristen Edwards, 22, of Glasgow. Her maternal grandmother, Sheryl Bailey, and other family members began pushing for the law to be changed when they learned that the penalty for what had been done to her after her death was so relatively small, Bailey said.
The law would make abuse of a corpse a Class D felony in every case. Currently, it is a Class A misdemeanor, “unless the act attempted or committed involved sexual intercourse or deviate sexual intercourse with the corpse or the deliberate failure to prepare, bury or cremate a corpse after the acceptance of remuneration in accordance with any contract negotiated, in which case it is a Class D felony.”
A Class D felony can carry a sentence of one to five years' imprisonment, while the penalty for a Class A misdemeanor is 90 days to 12 months and a $500 fine.
Bailey watched on her cell phone Tuesday the House's session, which was broadcast live on Kentucky Educational Television's website, waiting for the consent orders of the day to be called for a vote. With consent orders, a list of bills anticipated to pass is read by their numbers, and one vote is taken for them all at the same time.
She said she had gone to Frankfort and was there with Givens when the bill was introduced, but typically there was not enough notice for her to be able to make it when it came up for committee discussion or votes later, so she monitored from home.
After the House vote Tuesday, she said that was great, but words couldn't truly express how she felt.
“I'm just excited and anxious to hear [when] it's final,” Bailey said.
She said it would be an answered prayer, and she would have some assurance knowing that her granddaughter's name would live.
"She would be so humbled to have her name on a bill," Bailey said, because she was such a modest person. "I don't think she could ever grasp the concept of what she meant to people."
Because Smith eventually pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the charges in July last year, the case did not go to trial as scheduled, so many of the details of what happened to Edwards' 4-foot, 9-inch, 79-pound body were never made publicly available, but the family members were privy to more information, and Bailey, as a way of forcing herself to come to terms with her granddaughter's death, insisted on seeing some of the photos.
“I had to prove to myself that it really was her,” Bailey said.
She said that as the family members learned of the potential penalties for the crimes with which Smith was charged and were told that the maximum sentence for abuse of a corpse was 12 months, “that's when we just fell out, and I'm like, no, that's got to be [changed] … immediately, that's got to be changed.”
Bailey said they felt like it should be considered a more serious crime with a heftier penalty.
“I just didn't want some other family – we had no closure at all, because we couldn't view the body, and to find out she was murdered was devastating, but then when we heard the details of what he actually did after he killed her, was almost as brutal as the murder was, and that was just hard to hear …, and to be one year [penalty], that was just beyond comprehension,” Edwards' grandmother said. “And it was too late to do anything for Kristen, but I thought, 'If this could deter anybody from having to go through what we went through ….”
Bailey said the feedback on the bill they've received on Facebook has been almost entirely supportive.
“I just felt like I had to do something. I spent my whole life trying to take care of Kristen – all the grandkids, not just her,” she said, although she recognizes and had told Kristen's sister that she knew that no matter what she did, it wouldn't bring back Kristen.
She said it has helped her grief process to stay busy and interested in something, and once the criminal case was resolved, then that thing became Kristen's Law.
“It's just a memory, a tribute to her honor, honoring her memory, and that her death was not in vain,” Bailey said. “She died, but maybe in her death, somebody else could be helped.”
Meanwhile, she continues remembering Edwards as the good, very protective mother, albeit often too trusting of others, she was to her two children, a daughter who is now 5 and son who is 3.
Bailey's faith has played a vital role helping her through her grief, and she said Edwards while she was alive, so she knows exactly where her spirit is.
“Now she knows exactly what love is – the right kind of love,” she said.
It was around August or September of 2016 when they learned about the sentence range, and the family knew then-Rep. Johnny Bell but found out he wasn't running for re-election so would not be in office for the next General Assembly, and they also knew Rep. Steve Riley, but didn't know whether he would win, so they started with Givens.
Interest was expressed but the family members were told the bill couldn't be introduced while the case was pending, although they could start looking into it, so the family got back in touch with his office after Smith was sentenced in August, and then again after the first of the year as the legislative session was starting.
Riley, whose wife used to work with Bailey's sister, said he voted in favor of that bill along with the other consent items, and he appreciated all the work Givens had done to help move the issue forward, not only for what it means to Edwards' family but also the future of the commonwealth.
He said he'd been aware of the effort all along, and Bailey had kept him informed of the status.
He believes it will help make the commonwealth “a more civilized society.”
“I just think people need to realize that this is serious, and that the state is considering it serious and that we value human life, even to the point it's treated with respect and dignity even after someone passes away,” Riley said by phone Tuesday afternoon.
He said he was surprised when he learned the classification of the crime – “that it was considered that small of a crime” – and this would broaden the scope of what makes it a felony.
“The family's gone through a lot through this and hopefully this will at least give them some belief that her [death] was not in vain and that we're trying to do something to help the citizens of the commonwealth,” Riley said. “It gives further meaning to her life.”
He said his sympathies continue for her family members.
The Daily Times reached out to Givens via text message asking for comments but had not heard back by mid-evening.
Bailey's understanding is that, provided the governor signs it, the new law would go into effect July 1.