Many people have heard that habeas corpus translates to “bring forth the body” or something similar. As a result, there is often a misconception that the US Constitution requires a dead body to have been discovered in order for the government to prosecute a murder charge. But habeas corpus, while an important legal doctrine, has nothing to do with dead bodies and instead refers to the (presumably) living body of the person being charged with a crime. In fact, you can still be charged with murder, even if the body of the victim has never been discovered.
Can You Be Convicted of Murder Without a Body?
While it is possible to be charged with murder even if a body hasn’t been found, it is rare and much more difficult for the prosecution to obtain a conviction. In fact, since there is no statute of limitations on murder charges, prosecutors often wait years to file murder charges if they believe there is any chance the police might find the victim’s body.
That being said, if it seems unlikely a victim’s body will be discovered but there is ample evidence indicating that the suspect killed them, the prosecution may choose to file charges anyway. In this case, the prosecution must rely on a strong chain of circumstantial evidence. Though there is no direct evidence proving the victim is deceased (meaning there’s no body), enough circumstantial evidence could result in a conviction. Of course, the defendant’s lawyer will try to poke holes in the circumstantial evidence, arguing that there is insufficient proof to prove either that the alleged victim is deceased, that the defendant killed her, or both.
A Chain of Circumstantial Evidence
As an example, imagine that a husband and wife were seen fighting outside of a bar. They were observed fighting all the way back to their hotel room, where the neighbors testified hearing them fight until suddenly they heard a loud “thud” and then silence. A hotel surveillance camera shows the man lifting something heavy into his trunk and then leaving in his car alone. A cashier at a gas station near a large forest testifies that the man bought gas there. His wife never is seen leaving on the camera and no one has seen her since.
The man is then arrested with a map to the forest, a dirty shovel and clothes covered in the wife’s blood. The trunk and the hotel room are also covered in her blood and the room also contained a heavy lamp that has her blood, hair and skin samples on it. In this case, it would be fairly easy for the prosecution to put together a strong chain of evidence showing the man killed his wife with the lamp, drug her body to the trunk of the car, drove her to the forest and buried her.
Of course, most cases don’t have this much evidence. If an alleged victim disappears and there is only a little blood and a few people testify to seeing their spouse argue with them, for example, it would be easy enough for a good Vista murder lawyer to argue that the couple got in a fight and while there may have been an instance of domestic violence, the spouse walked away alive and well before disappearing. In some rare cases, if you truly believe your spouse is alive and in hiding, it may pay to hire an investigator to help you track them down to prove you did not commit murder.
Whatever the case though, if your spouse has disappeared, you do not want to say anything to the police before first consulting with your lawyer. Remember that whatever you say can be used against you. In fact, it can hurt you if you admit that you and your partner fought, but it can also hurt your case if you say you didn’t fight and then a witness contradicts that statement.
A Recent Example
The recent San Diego missing body murder case of alleged victim Jahi Turner shows it can be difficult to convict unless the circumstantial evidence is very powerful. Jahi Turner was missing 15 years ago at after he disappeared at age two while being watched by his mother’s boyfriend. The prosecution waited until recently to prosecute the defendant for murder because it thought it had substantially incriminating statements from the boyfriend. Attorney Courtney Cutter was able to hang the jury on the basis that the circumstantial evidence did not prove her client guilty of the murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Attorney Cutter later persuaded the San Diego judge to dismiss the charges entirely.
If someone has disappeared and you worry you may be accused of hurting them, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.
Creative Commons Image by Anders Nicolayson