My mailbox is filling up with e-mails asking how prosecutors can try to convict someone of murder if no body has been found. Is it fair to proceed to trial without one? Without a body isn’t there always reasonable doubt about whether the person is really dead? What about the corpus delicti principle?
No body, no trial, right? Wrong.
The questions stem from the recent arrest of a young mother in Florida named Casey Anthony. She’s charged with murdering her daughter but authorities have not discovered a body.
Three year old Caylee went missing in June 2008 yet it took more than a month before her mother finally reported the disappearance to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The notification came only after Casey Anthony was cajoled into making the report by the baby’s worried grandmother.
As I write this the whereabouts of the child are unknown but it’s safe to say the child didn’t wander away to start a new life, she certainly didn’t run off with a boyfriend and her father didn’t kidnap her because he’s dead. Prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to prove the poor little soul is dead. A grand jury agreed and indicted her mother on seven counts, including first degree murder.
No body – but plans for a murder trial anyway.
It’s happened in states all over America going back to the 1840’s when arriving sailors on the schooner Sarah Lavinia could not account for the whereabouts of their first mate. They were convicted of tossing him overboard. And, ‘no body’ prosecutions have happened ever since – in courts around the world.
Attorney Tad Dibiase, who runs the nobodymurdercases.com Web site, has collected nearly 300 examples of U.S. prosecutors who didn’t let the fact that there was no body get in the way of filing murder charges. Debaise says he’s discovered only one case in which the missing “victim” was later found alive. In 1886 one Mr. Charles Hudspeth was convicted and executed for killing his lover’s husband. Sadly, the husband was later discovered alive living in another state.
Over the years murder victims have been disposed of by secret burial, burning or acid. Water is a favorite dumping spot, especially shark filled waters. Once in a Connecticut case a wood chipper was used, in 1998 in Florida it was alligators. Two brothers in Michigan boasted of cutting up victims (yes, plural) and feeding them to their pigs. Cannibal Jeffery Dahmer got rid of some evidence by eating it. Too often, as in the sensational New Mexico murder trial of Girlie Chew Hossencofft in 2002, no body is ever located.
Dibiase, a 12 year veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, prosecuted a ‘no-body’ case and he won a conviction. In fact he’s found these cases have an astoundingly high success rate.
“The vast majority result in convictions,” he told me, “like 80 or 85%. That could be because they only take the strongest cases to trial.”
Steve Banic, of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, says the world wide conviction rate is even higher with only 1 out of 20 defendants winning acquittal. Banic’s personal research quest is focused on writing a book that brings together the world’s largest collection of ‘no body’ cases. He’s identified two thousand so far. And Banic corrects those (like murderers) who believe that the Latin term corpus delicti refers to the actual dead body. “Basically, corpus delicti … represents the ‘body’ of direct and indirect circumstantial evidence that shows that an alleged crime has occurred.”
Defense attorneys used to routinely argue to juries that the victim could still be alive. But that played right into the prosecutor’s strategy. It opened the door for the state to hammer home how great and reliable a person the victim was. Surely, they would tell the jury, the victim never would have voluntarily left the children, the job, their church, their way of life.
Yet the body is still the single most important piece of direct evidence a murder case can have. Without it there’s no time of death, no evidence from the condition of the body or the wound, no crime scene to process. The track record of convictions proves, however, that circumstantial evidence can be just as powerful.
But a funny thing often happens on the way to a ‘no body’ murder trial, especially if the death penalty is on the table.
When faced with the possibility of the ultimate penalty, says attorney Dibiase, “It’s very common that the defendants will bargain with the location of a body.”
If you take death off the table in exchange for the victim’s remains suddenly a ‘no body’ case can get solved on lots of different levels.
Look for the death penalty to stay in play in the Casey Anthony case – at least for now.