The “Corpus Delicti” Rule: Statements Alone Are Not Enough

by Jamison Koehler on June 6, 2012
Aerial view of DC

My client was walking along one night in Philadelphia when he was jumped by three men who took his money and firearm. When he went to the police to report the robbery, the police ran his record. They then arrested him for being a felon in possession of a firearm. In other words, he went into the police station as the victim of a crime. When he left the station (in a paddy wagon on his way to jail), he was the accused.

The problem for the prosecution was that no gun was ever recovered. No one actually saw my client in possession of the firearm. The only evidence against him was my client’s own statement. As a result, thanks to what has always been one of my favorite legal doctrines, the so-called “corpus delicti rule,” the case was ultimately dismissed.

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. No, 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 based on 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.  This means that the government must provide, as part of the basis for introducing the accused’s statement, some independent corroboration of illegal activity.

“Corpus delicti” is translated into English as “body of the crime.”  Because the principle is most traditionally associated with a missing person in a murder case, some people mistakenly believe that “body” refers to the actual physical body of the deceased.  British serial killer John George Haigh supposedly used acid to destroy the bodies of his victims because he thought that he couldn’t be convicted unless the government was able to produce the dead bodies.

Haigh should not have taken the concept quite so literally. Every crime consists of three elements. First, there is the occurrence of some type of injury or loss.  Second, there is some type of wrongful or criminal behavior that led to this injury or loss. Finally, there needs to be somebody who can be held responsible for the wrong. According to Wayne LaFave, the corpus delicti consists of the first two elements.  In other words, it is the actual substance of the crime.

Police will typically receive a report about a crime and then set about to determine who was responsible.  In the case of my client in Philadelphia, the government had it backward.  They had somebody – my client – who had admitted to a crime; in this case, the possession of a firearm by a felon.  But they had no evidence independent of my client’s statement that anything illegal had actually occurred.

With legal doctrines like this, who cannot enjoy being a criminal defense lawyer? Other lawyers may get more respect. But we have all the fun.

8 Comments on “The “Corpus Delicti” Rule: Statements Alone Are Not Enough

  1. Let’s look at this from another viewpoint.

    Suppose you were representing one of the three men who had jumped the guy with the gun. When cross-examining the victim, and in closing argument, wouldn’t you have made a big deal if he hadn’t been arrested and charged:

    “You told the police you had a gun, right? And you knew it was illegal to have a gun, right? You had just told the police you’d committed a serious crime, right? But they didn’t arrest you then? They didn’t start a case against you? You’ve never been charged or tried for that crime? In fact, you committed that crime, as a felon with a gun, and the police and prosecutors haven’t done one thing to you? Now the statute of limitations isn’t over for that crime yet, right? You know that if the police want, they could arrest you as soon as you get off the stand, isn’t that correct?”

    “Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that the so-called victim in this case had every reason to lie. Not just because he was a felon, which the judge will tell you is reason enough to believe he’s a liar. But because every minute he sat on that stand, he knew that if he said one thing the prosecutor didn’t like, then he’d be leaving this courtroom in handcuffs. In short, he had every reason to lie, and to frame my client — an innocent man.”

    Seems pretty good to me.

  2. Wow! I successfully used this argument to get a charge of misrepresenting oneself as a US citizen dismissed. The government had no other evidence but the Defendant’s alleged statement that he was a U.S. citizen. In my Rule 29 motion, I argued that the government could not use the statement to prove its case and outside of that statement it had no other evidence, of the crime. The judge dismissed on the Rule 29 motion.
    You are correct, that it is a great legal doctrine, and the fact that it is so old, but still viable, makes it even better when you employ the doctrine. I see in another blog that you are looking for transcripts, I will try to upload the transcript in that matter. First trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial, my client was acquitted.

  3. K G Cameron: Congrats. And, yes, I am always looking for interesting trial transcripts — good, bad, educational, funny, whatever. If it is good, I will attribute. If not so good, well, then anonymous.

  4. Another perspectives arguments sound good at first blush but they’d be blown out of the water by the prosecutor. Essentially the defense wants to suggest Johnny was real clever to fabricate this whole incident yet if he was so clever then why did he implicate himself in a criminal offense? Also, ladies and gentleman, when it comes to protecting victims of crimes, either everyone matters or no one matters. Every victim, regardless of who they are our what their background is deserves to be protected by our laws, whether it’s a prostitute being beaten by her pimp or a soccer mom being abused by her husband. And so on and so forth. I could write a page or two about this but I need to get back to work.

  5. Who was injuried as a result of the crime i am acused of having committed? Can an employee of the store where items were taken show up as an injuried party? Even if he/she saw items being taken, were they injuried as a result of what I am alleged to have done? Does not the owner of the store or someone with interest in the store have to show up as an injuried party?
    When a auto is reported stolen and I’m caught driving that stolen vehicle by the police. Don’t the owner of that vehicle have to show in court for the prossecution to get a conviction? No injuried party, no crime, Right?

  6. Mr. Mallard:

    Whether or not there is a specific individual who has been injured, all criminal offenses involve some type of offense against the community. That is why it is the government — and not the individual — that brings the charges on behalf of the community. In the case of a stolen vehicle, you usually need the owner of the vehicle or someone else who is in lawful possession of the vehicle, to testify that the defendant did not have permission to drive it.

  7. Pingback: In Re K.A.: The "Quantum of Independent Evidence" Needed to Corroborate a Confession | Koehler Law


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