Corpus Delicti

I have an elderly friend who is constantly asking me questions about this or that legal case he finds in the newspaper.  Because Gerasimos has a severe hearing problem and refuses to use a hearing aid I end up answering his questions in writing.  Obviously this will be very helpful with this blog.   Entire posts will probably consist of modified letters to Gerasimos.

Gerasimos gets especially agitated over anything that involves the police.  However, when I told this gentleman that Peterson would probably also be charged with murder of his 4th wife after he’s been sentenced for his 3rd wife’s murder, Gerasimos truly wondered how Peterson could be tried if there was no corpse.  Gerasimos just couldn’t understand how that could be.

He asked me how they could charge Drew Peterson with murder of his 4th wife when no body has been found.  Because, once Peterson is sentenced, he WILL be held for Stacy Peterson’s murder.  In fact, in the last 5 years in suburbs around Chicago, two wives (Stacy Peterson and Lisa Stebic) have mysteriously run off with other men.  That’s what Petersen said and the other guy, Craig Stebic, is saying the same thing!  Neither of them has been charged yet but now they will be – as soon as the prosecutors decide how to get the evidence they need or decide that the evidence they already have is good enough for trial!

Some criminals think that if they can get rid of a body that they can’t be charged with murder.  They misinterpret the Latin word
"corpus" as a literal dead body (a corpse) rather than a figurative one.  That is an erroneous belief!!!  I think the only reason I know what it means is ‘cause I took Latin in high school.

Yes, ‘corpus’ means body in Latin.  But the word delecti (Latin: delicti) means the crime &/or evidence.  In other words, there has to actually be a crime before you can accuse someone of committing the crime and a prosecutor has to provide a ‘body of evidence’ in order to make a charge against that person and take the person to criminal Court.

Corpus Delicti is one of the most important concepts in a murder investigation. When a person disappears and cannot be contacted, many police agencies usually start a missing person case.  If, during the course of the investigation, detectives believe that he/she has been murdered, then a "body" of evidentiary items, including, but not limited to, physical and empirical evidence, must be obtained to establish that the missing individual has indeed been murdered before a suspect can be charged with homicide. The best and easiest evidence establishment in these cases is the physical body of the deceased. However, in the event that a physical body is not obviously present or has not yet been discovered, it is possible to prove a crime took place if sufficient circumstantial evidence is presented to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the last dozen years or so, bodyless murder cases have been tried in, I believe, 48 states and there have been over 350 bodyless  murder trials in the United States. The conviction rate is only slightly lower than cases where there IS an actual body even though the prosecutors have to work very hard to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.   Remember: you only need “Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” – NOT – “Proof Beyond ALL Doubt”.

There are a variety of ways that prosecutors use to prove there was a crime of murder, not a simple missing person case if no body is found.  For example, there have been cases where the amount of blood found in what was obviously a murder scene will prove to a jury that the victim could not have lived after that amount of blood was lost.   In most of these cases the offender(s) go through a lot of trouble trying to hide the blood, usually under new carpeting.  Thank goodness for DNA which is vital to prove it was the victim’s blood.

In other cases, the age, character and sometimes even the personality of the victim &/or the offender is used to prove murder.  Why would a young, healthy mother of three, who had worked a full-time job for years and took graduate courses for a Master’s Degree suddenly run away with a boyfriend two days before her graduation?  Or what about the woman who had just been promoted at work?  Why would she run away with a boyfriend the night before she started her new job with much higher pay?

None of this says only men use that excuse for the disappearance of their wives.  Women also try to use that excuse but the
fact is that it’s much harder for a 110 pound woman to get rid of the body of her 200 pound husband than the reverse.  Besides, women more often use poison than knives or guns.  The women simply hope nobody tests for various poisons or heavy metals.

If this woman, whatever age or circumstances, decides to run away, she needs things on her journey: like money, clothes, personal items and maybe even mementos of her life before she ‘left’.  Those are exactly the things that the investigators found in the Petersons’ home.  Also, Stacy Peterson’s car was left behind which is why Drew Peterson had to say that she had run off with another man.  If she didn’t, why was Stacy Peterson’s car still there?  There are other pieces of evidence that they'll use but the general idea is that a young mother disappeared who not only had two very young children with Drew Peterson but Stacy Peterson went through the trouble of adopting Drew Peterson’s children he had with Kathleen Savio.

Liza Stebic did have her purse with wallet, credit cards and cell phone in it but the credit cards have not been used and her cell phone hasn’t pinged off any towers.  She too left her car behind and her husband is absolutely sure someone grabbed her and took her away.  Of course, right after Liza disappeared, Craig Stebic hired a lawyer and stopped all cooperation with police, including preventing them from questioning their children to whom he had given money and told them to go off and buy some candy on the very afternoon and time that Liza disappeared.

There is another piece of this type of prosecution that should be noted.  The use of ‘‘Hearsay” evidence is sometimes allowed when the evidence is strong that the victim, usually in a murder case, has been prevented from testifying by actions of the defendant.

All of this simply means that it may be rare but it’s very possible to take a person to trial for murder even if there is no victim’s body to be found.


Filed under: Criminal Justice, Law

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