Toronto

Why it's so hard to declare murder victim Laura Babcock dead

Laura Babcock was murdered seven years ago, and her family is still trying to have her officially declared dead years after her killers were convicted of murder. That way stark reminders like a voter registration card, which arrived Monday in the family's mailbox, don't keep showing up.

Ontario premier's office says province is now looking into the issue

Laura Babcock was murdered by Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, who were convicted in 2017. Now, her family is navigating a complex court process in an effort to have her officially registered as dead. (Facebook)

In the eyes of Ontario's government, murder victim Laura Babcock is both alive and dead — and nobody is giving her family straight answers about how to navigate that paradox.

The 23-year-old Toronto woman was murdered seven years ago, and her family is still trying to have her officially declared dead years after her killers were convicted of murder. That way stark reminders like a voter registration card, which arrived Monday in the family's mailbox, don't keep showing up.

Premier Doug Ford's office says it's aware of the issue and is trying to address it. Only a legislative change can fix the problem, leaving a flummoxed family searching for answers with little help to figure out an exceptionally complex and rare legal process.

Until Wednesday, no one from the coroner's office nor the Ministry of the Attorney General had spoken to the family about what was happening with the issue, said Linda Babcock, Laura's mother. "I had been told nothing," she said.

Officials from the ministry have confirmed to CBC News that a court-ordered declaration of death issued to the family in August means Laura Babcock is now on record as deceased.

However, the coroner's office still cannot issue a death certificate and have the woman officially registered as dead because her remains were never recovered.

It's a very, very unusual case.- Natasha Gauthier, Elections Canada spokesperson

In a statement, Premier Doug Ford's press secretary Ivana Yelich said Ford is aware of the situation.

"Of course his thoughts are with the family and friends of Ms. Babcock," she said.

"Our government is currently looking at ways to address this issue and will have more to say in the coming months."

Yelich did not offer more information about how the issue might be addressed. The Ontario legislature has been on an extra long summer break, and isn't set to sit again until Oct. 28.

"We're still working through policy options," Yelich said in an email.

Linda Babcock, centre, stands next to her husband Clayton as they listen to Crown lawyers speak to the media outside court in Toronto after Millard and Smich were found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of their daughter. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Babcock was one of three people who died at the hands of Dellen Millard, 34, of Toronto. He was also convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his father, Wayne, as well as Hamilton man Tim Bosma.

Mark Smich, 32, of Oakville, Ont., was also convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of Babcock and Bosma.

Babcock disappeared back in 2012, and Millard and Smich were convicted of her murder in 2017.

2 voter cards addressed to a murder victim

Babcock's parents first received a voter card addressed to their daughter before the 2018 provincial election, and were then shocked to learn that their daughter had not officially been declared dead.

That's because the coroner's office was not able to issue her death certificate. Two of the things that must be recorded as part of that process are cause of death and manner of death, according to the coroner's office, and neither was possible without a body.

That forced the Babcock family to go to court and ask a judge to officially declare her dead — even though two men were already serving life sentences for her murder.

Linda Babcock told CBC News that her understanding of the process was she would then have to get a lawyer, go to court again with the declaration of death and petition the coroner's office to officially register her daughter's death.

This voter card was delivered to the Babcock family's home on Monday. (Submitted by Linda Babcock)

But the coroner's office and the ministry say they believe that order means in the eyes of the court system, Babcock is legally considered dead.

"That is my understanding," said Cheryl Mahyr, spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Coroner, in an email. "Laura Babcock has been officially declared dead by the courts so as far as I am aware, her estate can now be administered."

Yet, bizarrely, Babcock is still not officially registered as dead — because the legislation does not allow the coroner to issue a death certificate without examining any remains.

The only way the coroner could register Babcock as dead and totally close the door on this situation is if there was some sort of change in the legislation.

"It has to be a change in the law that allows them to do this," Babcock's mother said.

Babcock removed from voter list, Elections Canada says

The situation reared its head again this week when Babcock's parents received a voter card for their daughter for the upcoming federal election.

In a statement, Elections Canada offered "sincere apologies" to the family.

"We're very sorry for this family's loss, and that this error occurred," said spokesperson Natasha Gauthier. "We understand how upsetting this can be."

She said voter information cards are mailed to anyone on the national database of Canadians who are qualified to vote — a list that is around 27 million people long.

Millard, left, and Smich, right, are both serving time for first-degree murder convictions. (Facebook, Instagram)

That list is "continually" updated with information from many sources, Gauthier said, including vital statistics agencies, driver's licence bureaus and other electoral agencies.

But there is also a time lag between when a death happens and when the register is updated, she said. It can take up to nine months for that notification to reach Elections Canada.

Court-ordered declarations of death, such as the one the Babcock family has, are not usually one of the sources of information that feed into and update the registry, Gauthier said. Usually, a family member would need to provide documentation like a death certificate to Elections Canada to prove a family member is dead and get them off the list.

"In these circumstances, we just went ahead and took this woman's name off," Gauthier said. 

"It's a very, very unusual case."

The baffling complexity of this situation hammers home the fact that the legislation here needs to change, Babcock's mother said. It has left a grieving family with yet another issue to navigate.

"Everything should be taken care of at the time of the sentencing. It would be done," she said.

Babcock wants to see a legislative directive in situations where a murder has taken place where the coroner's office can accept a conviction as a judgment that a person is dead, even without a body.

That way, all this mess could be avoided, she said.

"Victims of murder should be declared deceased at the time of the trial."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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