Judge pondering decision in case of husband's body kept in freezer

Barbara J. Watters

A judge on Wednesday took under advisement a defense motion to dismiss a charge of abandonment of a corpse that a Joplin woman is facing for keeping her dead husband in a freezer for almost a year.

Attorney Cobb Young argued at a hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court that Barbara J. Watters, 67, did not violate the law governing the matter because she never abandoned, left, withdrew from, discarded or disposed of husband Paul Barton's body when he died. Those are the terms used to delineate the acts prohibited by state law with respect to treatment of the deceased.

Police discovered the body Nov. 11 in a freezer in a bedroom of Watters' home at 2602 S. Vermont Ave. Investigators believe he died in December 2018 and that she kept him in the freezer for more than 10 months.

Watters purportedly told police her husband had Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, and was concerned that if she reported the matter to police, they would help a doctor she believed wanted her husband's brain when he died for research purposes. An affidavit filed with the charge against her states that Watters suffers from "mental disorders."

Young told Associate Judge Joe Hensley that Missouri law ensures the right of spouses or next of kin to choose how a loved one's body is to be disposed, whether by burial, cremation or some other arrangement. He argued that his client simply "preserved" her husband's body by placing him in a freezer in her bedroom, which is not specifically prohibited under the statute.

Prosecutor Theresa Kenney told Hensley that it is the state's position that Watters violated the statute by failing to report his death to authorities. She said the right to choose what is to be done with a loved one's body is subject to a clear requirement of the statute to report the death to law enforcement so that it may be properly investigated for the possibility of foul play, among other reasons.

Kenney said the defense's claim that Watters did not violate the statute because she never actually "left" or "disposed" of the body is not even technically true.

"She didn't climb in the freezer with him," Kenney told the judge. "She put him in the freezer. She closed it and she went about her activities."

The judge decided he would take the matter under advisement and rule on the motion by Friday. He also postponed making any decision on a defense motion to modify Watters' bond conditions.

Watters is currently under house arrest and not allowed to leave her residence except for court appearances and consultations with her attorney. Young asked that the court relax those conditions now that the investigation has determined her husband did not meet with foul play.

Kenney opposed any relaxation of bond conditions, pointing out that Watters allegedly threatened to kill the witness who reported that she was keeping her husband in a freezer to police. The judge asked if she had surrendered all firearms as previously ordered by the court and was told by her attorney that she had.

Hensley said he wanted to make a decision on the motion to dismiss before addressing bond conditions because dismissal would eliminate the need for a bond altogether.

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe. 

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