The corpus delicti rule has always been one of my favorite legal doctrines. It is not just that the rule is in Latin, although that never hurts. It is not that the rule dates back centuries, although that is pretty cool too. Instead, what I like about the rule is that it stands for the principle that the government cannot prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the basis of the defendant’s out-of-court statements alone. In order to secure a conviction, the government must also be able to prove that some crime – some wrong or illegality – actually occurred. The “quantum of independent evidence” that is needed to corroborate a confession was the issue decided in a recent D.C. Court of Appeals opinion, In re K.A., 60 A.3d 442 (D.C. 2013).
Responding to an anonymous call from the gun tip line, police went to the small two-bedroom apartment where K.A., a juvenile, lived with his diabetic grandfather and cousin. Four of K.A.’s friends were also there at the time.
The grandfather consented to a search of the apartment, and police recovered two handguns from under the mattress in the grandfather’s bedroom. Police handcuffed the grandfather, telling him he was under arrest, and continued to search the apartment. Four additional officers arrived as backup so that there were at least 14 people crammed into the apartment, seven of whom were armed police officers wearing bulletproof vests.
The grandfather began to have a “diabetic emergency” after the police had been in the apartment for at least 30 minutes. Although paramedics were called, the grandfather was left in handcuffs while he was administered to. One of the officers told K.A. and his cousin that, because police knew the guns did not belong to the grandfather, “somebody in this room ought to confess up.” The two young men, police continued, were “uncivilized” and “dead wrong” for letting their grandfather “go through this situation right now, you know, when one of you obviously did it.”
The cousin testified that he felt so bad for his grandfather that he seriously considered confessing. But it was K.A. who stepped up. “Man, they my guns,” he said. “Man, they my guns. Take that stuff off him.” K.A. also gave an accurate description of the guns.
Was this a voluntary confession? More importantly, was it a truthful confession?
D.C. follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s “corroboration rule” that requires the government to introduce “substantial independent evidence” establishing the trusthworthiness of a confession before that statement can be submitted to the jury. The requirement is codified in Rule 111 of D.C.’s rules of juvenile proceedings providing that a “constitutionally admissible, extra-judicial statement is insufficient to support a finding that the child committed the acts alleged in the petition unless it is corroborated by other evidence.” In other words, this is the corpus delicti rule.
As for what satisfies the requirement of “substantial independent evidence,” the Court held that “the amount and kind of evidence needed to corroborate a confession will depend upon the facts of each case”: “the more untrustworthy the circumstances under which a defendant gave his confession, the more substantial the independent evidence must be to justify a jury inference of its truth.”
In this case, with both K.A. and his cousin concerned about their grandfather’s well-being, the circumstances surrounding K.A.’s confession could only be described as suspect:
K.A. confessed after persistent questioning by a number of police officers in a small apartment that, while a familiar environment, had been filled with police officer for nearly an hour and a half. The officers repeatedly made clear that they were willing to arrest K.A.’s grandfather, despite his illness and even though they did not believe the guns were his. K.A.’s confession came in a conclusory statement – “Man, they my guns. Take those things off him” – that explicitly revealed an ulterior motivation to keep his ailing grandfather from being arrested.
And there was very little independent evidence to offset the suggestion of unreliability:
. . . this extrinsic evidence consists solely of K.A.’s statement describing the guns’ color and small size and the tape on one gun, which matched the appearance of the guns admitted into evidence. While it is relevant that what few words K.A. used accurately described the guns’ appearance, it does not “support the essential facts admitted [in the confession] sufficiently to justify a jury inference of their truth.” Viewed in the light most favorable to the government, the descriptions indicate primarily that K.A. at some point saw the guns They do not signify that he owned them or even touched them, and they do not support an inference that K.A. constructively possessed the guns, which would require that he had “intent to exercise dominion or control over” them. (Internal citations omitted.)
Reversing the judgment, the D.C. Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to enter a judgment of acquittal.