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

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Procedure, Legal Concepts/Principles

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.