No Body, No Trial? No Way!

by Diane Dimond on October 25, 2008

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 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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

jeff liddell October 25, 2008 at 1:36 pm

Based upon Casey Anthony’s overall behavior and her ability to weave such intricate lies to authorities coupled with the newly released lab tests, it is obvious that she is responsible for the disappearance and probable death of Caylee. Again, my problem is the continuous pretrial persecution that is being afforded this girl in the media, especially by Nancy Grace and many of her guests constantly chatting about the death penalty. Even in this media driven world, the basic premise of innocent until proven guilty should still apply. Nancy and company have done everything but strap this young woman to the death gurney and all before her trial even begins, it is simply not right for this type of coverage to be allowed. As to the point of no body being found yet, Casey’s actions speak for themselves and I would not have a problem with a guilty verdict, but how can you apply a death penalty on the mere presumption of a missing body. The “what if they are still alive” factor is always going to be present. I think the proper way to deal with a no body case is a life sentence with no parole and a death penalty application upon discovery of the remains.


Diane October 25, 2008 at 5:04 pm

Attorney Richard Carter, from Arlington, Texas writes:

A “no body” case was successfully prosecuted in Tarrant County (Fort Worth) Texas a couple of weeks ago. A “life without parole” verdict was returned as the Criminal District Attorney did not go for the Death Penalty. Now, Tarrant County prosecutors are looking at possibly trying a second “no body” case.


Lyn October 25, 2008 at 6:54 pm

Hey Diane….wow. You know, I was watching Nancy’s show last night presented by JVM (of course to Nancy, everyone is guilty!!) and I have to admit I was very annoyed at Koby the famed forensic scientist…working for the defence and “dissing” the fact that the scientific evidence regarding the hair…although matches Caylee’s hair, could very well NOT be hers. I had to agree with Jane last night..she asked him..oh yeh, like somebody just dumped a body in the trunk that just happened to have the same dna etc etc. I was disgusted with him and his comments on this. Of course it was Caylee’s body….I found myself getting increasingly irritated at the defence’s or is that defense’s points about this case. I have to agree with you Jeff…when Casey was indicted for murder my first thought was…no body, can;t be death penalty…although Diane did put me right on this and said that it is possible that the death penalty could be sought. Hopefully, Caylee’s body will be found order to give Casey the dp and to then let Cindy Anthony realise that her grand-daughter is dead and not walking around in Puerto Rico or Texas or wherever the hell she might think of next. I would hate to be in her shoes right now though. Her and George must be going through pure hell and of course want to hang on to every little hope that the little girl is still alive. (How i wish Nancy;s show would refrain from referring to Caylee as the tot….). Jeff your life without parole (without the body) and dp with the body is a good way of dealing with this.

I live in a DP state (MN) but am from a country that does not allow the death penalty….or I should say has not allowed it for years. I guess I find it hard to get the “dp” thing in my mind.

Yes Diane, Dahmer was a cannibal wasn;t he? Trying to get rid of his boy bodies..and Ed Gein…what the hell was going on with him. Sorry I digress..I will shut up now.


Diane October 26, 2008 at 9:35 am

Retired Detective Bob writes:

My wife and I have been following the Casey – Caylee Anthony case very closely on Nancy Grace. Despite my experience as an police investigator, I naively held out hope that Caylee might still be alive and somehow “sold” by her mother to someone who actually wanted her. However, as the circumstantial evidence mounted, I have come to realize Caylee is dead and most likely at the hands of her narcissistic mother. It is difficult for my wife and I to have any sympathy for Casey Anthony.

Despite my police background, I am an opponent of the death penalty for moral and practical (cases of wrongful convictions like Marty Tankleff who would be dead now if there was a death penalty) and many other reasons. However, based on my experience, I cannot deny that having the death penalty as leverage, the likliehood of finding Caylee’s remains is much greater.
Great article!


jeff liddell October 26, 2008 at 11:47 am

Let’s examine the death penalty a little further. Death is self explanatory. Penalty, from a legal aspect, is defined as the suffering in person, rights, or property that is annexed by law or judicial decision to the commission of a crime or public offense. From the Bible, for a moral point of view, we find from the book of Exodus – “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”. From Leviticus – “Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered”. From Deuteronomy – “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. Then of course we have the 6th commandment “Thou shalt not kill” which of course is a directive and the other references quote the remedies that are acceptable when one does kill. So anyone that says the death penalty is against what the Bible teaches is clearly wrong.

The death penalty is necessary as a deterrent to violent crime, but our process of carrying out the penalty has done nothing to deter violent crime. Many criminals live for many years in the prison system before or even if they are ever executed, and that only serves the criminals, not the victims. There is no easy answer to solving the dilemma of the death penalty, but unless the process can be streamlined and expedited (which gives us the risk of executing the wrong person) it will never serve the purpose in which it is intended.


Diane October 26, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Doug, an attorney in New York writes:

“The no body issue is always interesting; I believe the body is called “corpus delicti” — In fact, the best war story I’ve ever heard came from Alan Dershowitz in one of his books — a man was on trial for killing his wife and there was no body — during summation, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes (the case was in Texas) argued, “ladies and gentlemen I’ll tell you what reasonable doubt is — what if [she] walks into this courtroom right now; let’s look at our watches together for 10 seconds and see if she comes in….

After the verdict — of guilty — Haynes was chatting with the jurors in the hall — He said, you know when I made that argument, everyone was looking at the door; how could you have found him guilty?

with that, a woman said “actually Mr. Haynes, juror number 7 made a good point. Haynes said, “oh, what was that?”

she said that everyone WAS looking at the door, except for one person.

Haynes said, “oh, who was that?”

Answer: “your client; he wasn’t looking at the door”

if you already heard it, I apologize — if not, though, it’s worth repeating.


jeff liddell October 26, 2008 at 5:36 pm

Being a native of Beaumont, Tx., 90 miles south of Racehorse Haynes hometown, he always seemed to be in the news. I lived in Houston briefly in the mid 70’s and once ran into Haynes at a party and he was the same in or out of the courtroom. Thanks for reminding of this story. As a note to those interested, if you want to read a really good novel about the John Hill murder case, which was one of Haynes blockbuster cases, pick up a copy of Thomas Thompson’s “Blood and Money” if you can find one.


Doug Burns October 26, 2008 at 8:16 pm

thanks for that reply Jeff — I’ve always loved that story — I also write because as a collector and reader of many, many true crime books over the last 25 years, I have a copy of Blood and Money in my bookcases -along with a couple of other Thompson volumes – all the best — Doug


John R. Lancellotti November 1, 2008 at 2:56 pm

This thing refuses to let me say my piece, Diane. Why?


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