The district attorney prosecuting the Zahra Baker case is spearheading state legislation that would penalize people who dismember a body to hide a crime.
In a statement released Friday, Catawba County District Attorney James Gaither Jr. said he's been working with members of his staff for months to draft the proposed changes to state law.
Current statutes prohibit concealing a death. Anyone who tries to conceal a person's death by failing to notify authorities or by secretly disposing of the body is guilty of a felony, according to the statute. And anyone who helps another person conceal a death is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Gaither's recommendations would make it a felony to dismember or destroy human remains in an attempt to conceal evidence of a death when that person knows or has reason to believe the deceased did not die of natural causes.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
His recommendations also would make it illegal for people to disturb human remains by vandalizing or desecrating a body. That offense would be a misdemeanor, according to his proposal.
State representatives Mark Hilton, who represents Catawba County, and Tim Moore, who represents Cleveland County, are working to get the proposed changes introduced during the N.C. General Assembly's current session.
Gaither told the Observer on Saturday that he noticed the lack of such laws as he began working on the case of Zahra, the 10-year-old whose body was dismembered and scattered across rural areas.
He said the purpose of his proposal is twofold. It would aid law enforcement as they investigate and solve crimes, he said, and it would help preserve people's dignity after their deaths.
"I think it's an issue of the value we as a society place upon the memory of an individual," he said.
The proposal comes as he pursues a case against Zahra's stepmother, who is accused in the girl's death.
Zahra, who was hearing-impaired and lost a leg to bone cancer, was reported missing by her father in October.
Her stepmother, Elisa Baker, has told investigators the girl died of an illness and that the girl's father dismembered and hid the body. Zahra's father, Adam Baker, has denied those allegations.
Elisa Baker was initially charged with obstructing justice in connection with Zahra's disappearance. After medical examiners determined the girl died as a result of "undetermined homicidal violence," police charged her with second-degree murder.
Some of Zahra's remains have yet to be recovered, including her skull, according to her autopsy.