Corpus Delecti

Background

Corpus Delecti (literally, "The Body of the Crime") is the requirement that the prosecution present actual evidence that a crime was committed in order to convict a defendant. In popular culture it has often been stated that an individual cannot be convicted of homicide without the production of the dead body. However, an individual may be convicted of homicide even if the body cannot be found, as long as there is enough circumstantial evidence to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual committed the crime. Rather than the literal body of the crime, corpus delecti refers to the body of evidence that a crime was committed. Thus, Black's Law Dictionary defines corpus delecti as " "the fact of a crime having been actually committed."

The purpose of the corpus delicti rule is to guard against “the hasty and unguarded character which is often attached to confessions and admissions and the consequent danger of a conviction where no crime has in fact been committed.” [1]

Corpus delecti has often been interpreted as requiring additional evidence beyond a confession before an individual can be convicted of a crime. In other jurisdictions corroborating evidence must be introduced before a confession may be admitted at trial. Additional evidence may also be required before an accomplice's confession may be admitted against the defendant.

Corpus Delecti does not typically require proof of each and every element of a crime before an out-of-court confession becomes admissible. However, it does require independent evidence showing that the charged crime occured.The principle of corpus delecti requires corroborative evidence that proves (1) the occurrence of the specific kind of injury or loss and that (2) the injury or loss was caused by someone’s criminal activity. Some jurisidictions may require some independent proof that the defendant was connected to the criminal act.

The idea that an individual should not be convicted of a crime based only on a confession dates back at least to the 17th Century, most famously exemplified in Perry's case. [2] There, the purported murder victim, disappeared one night, leaving a “hacked and bloody” hat behind. The defendant was confessed, implicating not only himself but his brother and mother in the murder as well. All three were tried, found guilty, and executed. Some time after the executions the alleged victim was discovered to still be alive.[3]

Some states have abandoned the corpus delecti rule in favor of a more flexible "trustworthiness" standard for admitting confessions absent corroborating evidence. For instance, in Opper v. United States[4], the United States Supreme Court rejected the common law corpus delicti rule and adopted the “trustworthiness” approach. Under that rule, the government must “introduce substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish the trustworthiness of the [defendant’s] statement.” But this “corroborative evidence need not be sufficient, independent of the [defendant’s] statements, to establish the corpus delicti.”


See Defenses, Evidence

Notes

  1. Commonwealth v. Turza, 16 A.2d 401, 404 (Pa. 1940)
  2. Perry’s Case, 14 How. St. Tr. 1311 (1660)
  3. Note, Proof of the Corpus Delicti Aliunde the Defendant’s Confession, 103 U. PA. L.REV. 638, 638 (1955). “This and similar cases led the British courts to question the sufficiency of confessions to prove that a crime had been committed.” Id. at 639.
  4. Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84 (1954)