Corpus delicti literally means the body or substance of the crime. In law the term refers to proof establishing that a crime has occurred.
Although misunderstanding about corpus delicti has been common, the term does not refer to a dead body. There is a corpus delicti of robbery, tax evasion, and, indeed, of every criminal offense. Moreover, even in a homicide case, a "dead body" is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish the corpus delicti. Testimony that a ship's passenger pushed the deceased overboard can establish the corpus delicti of murder even if the body is never recovered. Conversely, the body of a child killed in a fire would not establish the corpus delicti of murder, absent proof that the fire was caused by some criminal act (Perkins).
When a failure to prove some fact essential to the charge implies that the offense was not committed by anyone, the courts sometimes say that reversal of the conviction is required by the absence of a corpus delicti. It would be equally accurate, and less mysterious, to say simply that the reversal results from the prosecutor's failure to prove an essential element of the case.
The principal significance of corpus delicti is its effect on the admissibility of evidence. Under the traditional rule, still followed in most states, a confession is inadmissible unless there is independent evidence of a corpus delicti. But some American jurisdictions now reject this traditional rule. In federal courts and in several states, a confession is admissible if its trustworthiness is established, even without independent proof of a corpus delicti. Some commentators argue that this approach offers a better way to meet concerns about the truthfulness of a confession (Mullen).
Many murder convictions have been obtained even though the body of the alleged victim was never found. In several early cases, dating from the seventeenth century and before, the "deceased" turned up alive and well shortly after the defendant had been executed (Perkins). Such miscarriages of justice contributed to the development of the rule requiring independent corroboration of any confession. In the modern era, numerous murder convictions continue to be found by juries and upheld by the courts even in the absence of a dead body. In nearly all of these cases the defendant confessed, and the proof of corpus delicti, together with the defendant's direct admissions, afforded strong evidence of guilt (e.g., Jones v. State, 701 N.E.2d 863 (Ind. App. 1998)).
More troublesome, and less common, are murder prosecutions in which there is no dead body, no confession, and no eyewitness to the alleged crime. In these cases the proof of guilt is necessarily "circumstantial"—that is, based entirely on inferences drawn from suspicious facts. Although the potential for a miscarriage of justice in such cases is evident, the legal system must have some means for dealing with the offender who is able to obliterate all trace of the victim (Morris). In many cases, circumstantial evidence of guilt has been held sufficient to warrant a conviction of murder, even though neither a dead body, a confession, nor an eyewitness was available (e.g., State v. Nicely, 529 N.E.2d 1236 (Ohio 1988)).
Stephen J. Schulhofer
See also Confessions; Discovery.
Morris, Norval. "Corpus Delicti and Circumstantial Evidence." Law Quarterly Review 68 (1952): 391–396.
Mullen, Thomas A. "Rule without Reason: Requiring Independent Proof of the Corpus Delicti as a Condition of Admitting an Extrajudicial Confession." University of San Francisco Law Review 27 (1993): 385–418.
Perkins, Rollin M. "The Corpus Delicti of Murder." Virginia Law Review 48 (1962): 173–195.
cor·pus de·lic·ti / dəˈlikˌtī; -tē/ • n. Law the facts and circumstances constituting a breach of a law. ∎ concrete evidence of a crime, such as a corpse.
[Latin, The body of the crime.] The foundation or material substance of a crime.
The phrase corpus delicti might be used to mean the physical object upon which the crime was committed, such as a dead body or the charred remains of a house, or it might signify the act itself, that is, the murder or arson.
The corpus delicti is also used to describe the evidence that proves that a crime has been committed.