District authorities last night released the bodies of two persons who died of exposure this winter, after losing a court battle in which they sought to prevent advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder from claiming the remains for use in a public funeral.
However, the length of the all-day legal battle forced Snyder's group, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, to postpone until noon today the service, which had been scheduled for 5 p.m. yesterday on Western Plaza in front of the District Building.
"Why should we have had to go through all of this?" Snyder asked last night, shortly after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order earlier in the day requiring that the city government turn over the bodies.
"I still have no real idea of why the District went out of its way to prevent two homeless from having a funeral," Snyder said. "They didn't want this funeral. They're very threatened by it. They are embarrassed. I understand why."
The District announced this week that 13 persons, seven of them homeless, have died of exposure this winter, sparking criticism from Snyder's group that not enough shelter is available in the city. The city has denied the allegation.
A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services had no comment last night about the ruling.
Previously, department Director M. Jerome Woods said he would refuse to release the bodies unless ordered by a court, on the basis that Snyder's plans to hold a funeral for the two people is indecent and would amount to a "public spectacle."
The controversy started Thursday when a member of CCNV sought to pick up the bodies of Henry Dixon, a homeless man who died from hypothermia on Jan. 2, and an unidentified woman who died of exposure on Jan. 7.
CCNV said that during the past eight years it has picked up the remains of more than 40 homeless people whose families or friends have not stepped forward to claim the bodies. The District had previously agreed to give the group the bodies in CCNV's capacity as "friend" of the homeless.
This time, however, the medical examiner's office refused to turn over the bodies, on the order of Woods' office.
Snyder's group filed a lawsuit against the District yesterday morning in D.C. Superior Court, arguing in court papers that "there is no compelling state interest for the denial of the release of the bodies . . . . "
Attorneys for CCNV said failure to turn over the bodies would "rob the deceased of the last and perhaps only respect shown them, strip the service of a large part of its meaning and power, and represent a victory for the forces of abstraction and indifference which . . . caused the deaths in the first place."
The District's attorneys countered by arguing that D.C. law gives the government discretion to withhold the bodies if they are to be used in an offensive or public way.
However, about 3 p.m. yesterday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, saying he could see no legitimate interest on the part of the District to withhold the bodies, ordered the city to turn them over to Snyder's group.
Soon after that, city attorneys appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals, and two hours later the two sides faced off again before Appeals Court Judges Spottswood W. Robinson III, Abner J. Mikva and Stephen F. Williams.
At the same time, between 50 and 100 people had gathered in front of the District Building for the scheduled funeral, which was to consist of a procession behind closed caskets, a wake and prayers by Episcopal minister William Wendt.
"I'm out here because I think that people who are forced to live in anonymity should not die in anonymity," said Dean Lubick, a student at George Washington University. "There are people out here to say that 'we remember you,' that there are people aware their brothers and sisters are out in the streets dying."
After hearing arguments in open court for about an hour, the three judges conferred privately before Robinson announced, in a terse ruling from the bench, that the judges saw "no basis" to reverse Jackson's decision. Shortly afterward, the bodies were released to CCNV. But by that time CCNV had decided to postpone the funeral until noon.
"Having people stand for hours waiting and in the middle of the night was not the idea of what we wanted to do," Snyder said.
The plight of the city's homeless was underscored as temperatures fell rapidly last night. Early today, D.C. police said the mayor's command post had opened Randle Junior High School, at Half and M streets SW, to shelter the homeless because of the cold. Police begin announcing the opening of the building to their patrol units just before 1:30 a.m.
Staff writer Eric Charles May contributed to this report.