For months, Linda Babcock sat in a courtroom listening to the horrifying details of her daughter’s murder at the hands of convicted killers Dellen Millard and Mark Smich.
Now, in a bizarre turn of events, she’s being forced to go to court to convince Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner that her daughter Laura is truly dead.
It’s a macabre situation caused by a strange gap between institutions. In the eyes of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, Laura Babcock is dead — as evidenced by Millard and Smich’s dual first-degree murder convictions, which a jury handed down in late 2017.
But because the 23-year-old Toronto woman’s remains were never recovered, the coroner’s office has not yet issued a death certificate — leaving an exhausted family with yet another hoop to jump through to find some semblance of closure.
“I just assumed that once there was a conviction that the coroner’s office would be notified … but there isn’t any communication between the two offices,” Linda Babcock told CBC News.
“It has to be a policy change with the coroner’s office.”
Litigation lawyer Kurt Pearson, who was not involved in the case, told CBC News this is an “extremely unique situation” that reveals what’s likely a “completely unanticipated gap” in the legislation.
“If somebody has been convicted [of murder], that conviction should stand on its own to satisfy the requirements to issue a death certificate,” he said.
Proving your loved one is gone
Laura Babcock was one of three people who died at the hands of Millard, 33, of Toronto. He was also convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his father, Wayne, as well as Hamilton man Tim Bosma.
Smich, 31, of Oakville, Ont., was also convicted of first-degree murder in Bosma’s death.
According to the coroner’s office, in situations where a person is believed dead but no body has been recovered, a coroner cannot, by law, complete a death certificate.
To have a person officially declared dead when no remains are available, their family must get a court declaration via the Declarations of Death Act.
That involves going to court to establish the death either through what’s called “circumstances of peril” — which includes situations like a plane crash where no remains are recovered — or through a lengthy investigative process once seven years have passed since the person was last seen.
Linda Babcock told CBC News she was shocked the family has to go through the declaration of death process, considering a jury has already decided her daughter is dead.
Cheryl Mahyr, spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Coroner, said in an email that requests like this are “extremely rare,” and she had no idea how long the process might take.
A representative for the Ministry of the Attorney General did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the situation.
Pearson said the coroner’s office likely feels its hands are tied.
“They aren’t trying to make it difficult for the family, it’s just the circumstances they’re operating under,” he said.
Fighting for legislative change
Babcock, for her part, wants to see a legislative directive that in situations where a murder has taken place, the coroner’s office will accept a conviction as a judgment that a person is dead, body or not.
That would close the loop as part of the trial process, instead of forcing a grieving family to prove a loved one’s death after the fact, she said.
“Since [Millard and Smich] have been convicted of murdering her, give us some peace of mind and register her as deceased,” Babcock said.
Instead, Babcock had to appear before a judge this week to get a court order declaring her daughter dead. Now, Babcock says, she has to get a lawyer, go to court again and petition the coroner’s office to officially register her daughter’s death.
The whole process has been weighing on the family, Babcock said.
“It just scrapes the scab off again,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
Laura Babcock had little in the way of assets when she died, so settling her estate isn’t complicated. She also didn’t have life insurance, which removes another hurdle; neither of those matters could be settled without a death certificate.
For the Babcock family, it’s more of an emotional issue. They still get mail for their daughter, like a voter card that showed up at their house before the last provincial election.
Moments like those make it even tougher to find closure, Babcock said.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” she said. “But this technicality needs to be changed.”