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Murder Conviction Without a Body?

Can a person be convicted of murder when there is no body?

Earlier this month, Marcus Todd was convicted of a South Carolina murder and sentenced to life in prison even though there was no body to confirm that the victim is deceased.

Historically, a body was needed to prove that the crime in fact happened. Since the 1900s, however, the rule has been that the "corpus delicti" of the crime of murder can be proven by circumstantial evidence without the certainty of seeing the victim's dead body.

No Body, No Murder

Under English common law, which was adopted by the United States in its infancy, a body was necessary to prove murder. The rule was a result of the "Campden Wonder" case in the 1660s, where three people were convicted of murder and hanged. Although the conviction was based in large part on the confession of one of the defendants, the alleged victim returned home alive and well two years later:

A man disappears and is feared murdered for the rent money he was collecting. His servant confesses to having robbed and killed his master and implicates his own mother and brother in the crime. Despite the fact that no body has been found, the three are tried, convicted and hanged.

Two years later the supposed victim returns home, safe and well. How does he explain his sudden disappearance and two-year absence? His story only deepens the mystery. He claims he was kidnapped by three unknown horsemen and, aged 70, sold into slavery in Turkey, where he eventually escaped and made his way home.

In the 1900s, the law began to change in America and England. For example, in England in 1954, the Court found in the case of Michail Onufrejczyk that circumstantial evidence was sufficient to establish the fact of death even in the absence of a body.

In America, in the 1960 California case of People v. Scott, the Court also found that circumstantial evidence is enough:

Circumstantial evidence, when sufficient to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis, may prove the death of a missing person, the existence of a homicide and the guilt of the accused.

Although it is still true that the absence of a body makes a murder prosecution extremely difficult, there is no longer a hard and fast rule that there must be a body for a murder conviction.

A Body is Not Required to Prove Murder in South Carolina

In State v. Owens, a 1987 South Carolina murder case, the SC Supreme Court reaffirmed the rule that a body is not necessary to convict a person for murder:

The State must produce proof aliunde of the corpus 12-14 delicti aside from the extrajudicial confession of the defendant. State v. Johnson, 291 S.C. 127, 352 S.E. (2d) 480 (1987); In re Perkins, 276 S.C. 378, 278 S.E. (2d) 781 (1981). The corpus delicti, however, may be proved by circumstantial evidence. State v. Owens, 291 S.C. 116, 352 S.E. (2d) 474 (1987). Other courts considering "no body" murder cases have allowed evidence of the victim's personal habits and relationships as circumstantial evidence from which an inference could be drawn that the victim's sudden disappearance was the result of death by a criminal act. See, e.g., State v. Head, 79 N.C. 1, 338 S.E. (2d) 908 (Ct. App. 1986); Epperly v. Commonwealth, 224 Va. 214, 294 S.E. (2d) 882 (1982).

*168 The circumstantial evidence surrounding Mr. Vereen's sudden disappearance, considered with the unlikelihood of his voluntary departure as shown by his personal habits and relationships, is sufficient to establish the corpus delicti of murder or that the victim is dead by the criminal act of another. See State v. Speights, 263 S.C. 127, 208 S.E. (2d) 43 (1974).

As a juror, I would be very careful before convicting a person when there was no body. Although I can envision facts that would convince me that a murder occurred without knowing that a body had been found, "beyond any reasonable doubt" is an incredibly high burden in this type of case.

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