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Corpus delicti (Latin: "body of the crime"; plural: corpora delicti) is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.
For example, a person cannot be tried for larceny unless it can be proven that property has been stolen. Likewise, in order for a person to be tried for arson it must be proven that a criminal act resulted in the burning of a property. Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.) defines "corpus delicti" as: "the fact of a crime having been actually committed".
In the Anglo-American legal system, the concept has its outgrowth in several principles. Many jurisdictions hold as a legal rule that a defendant's out-of-court confession, alone, is insufficient evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond reasonable doubt. A corollary to this rule is that an accused cannot be convicted solely upon the testimony of an accomplice. Some jurisdictions also hold that without first showing independent corroboration that a crime happened, the prosecution may not introduce evidence of the defendant's statement.
Corpus delicti is one of the most important concepts in a murder investigation. When a person disappears and cannot be contacted, many police agencies initiate a missing person case. If, during the course of the investigation, detectives believe that he/she has been murdered, then a "body" of evidentiary items, including physical, demonstrative, and testimonial evidence, must be obtained to establish that the missing individual has indeed been murdered before a suspect can be charged with homicide. The best and easiest evidence establishment in these cases is the physical body of the deceased. However, in the event that a physical body is not present or has not yet been discovered, it is possible to prove a crime took place if sufficient circumstantial evidence is presented to prove the matter beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, the presence at a missing person's home of spilled human blood, identifiable as that person's, in sufficient quantity to indicate exsanguination, demonstrates—even in the absence of a corpse—that the possibility that no crime has occurred, and the missing person is merely missing, is not reasonably credible.
In general, all corpus delicti requires at a minimum:
- The occurrence of the specific injury; and
- some intentional, knowing act as the source of the injury.
- Homicide: 1) An individual has died 2) as a result of action (or inaction) by another person.
- Larceny: 1) Property is missing 2) because it was stolen.
In essence corpus delicti of crimes refers to a palpable harm. Where there is no violation of an established right there can be no wrong.
Wrongs are also of two kinds and they are either public or private. Public wrongs are called crimes or public offenses whereas private wrongs are called torts and either involve the breach of a duty of care, a wrongful trespass against the person or property of another and breaches of agreement or contract. This difference forms the distinction between criminal law (regarding crime) and civil law (regarding torts).
In every instance there must be a palpable harm or injury to the rights of another coupled with mens rea ("guilty mind") or alternatively an element of negligence so severe as to be considered criminal.
Evidence in the case of British serial killer John George Haigh indicated that he decided to destroy the bodies of his victims with acid because he had the mistaken belief that, in the absence of a corpse, murder could not be proven because there was no corpus delicti. Haigh had misinterpreted the Latin word corpus as a literal body rather than a figurative one.
- See, e.g., Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 497 n.14, 83 S.Ct. 407, 9 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963 (citing to corpus delicti rule and stating: "For the history and development of the corroboration requirement, see 7 Wigmore, Evidence [3d ed. 1940], §§ 2070–2071; Note, Proof of the Corpus Delicti Aliunde the Defendant's Confession, 103 U. of Pa. L. Rev. 638–649 . For the present scope and application of the rule, see 2 Underhill, Criminal Evidence [5th ed. 1956], §§ 402–403. For a comprehensive collection of cases, see Annot., 45 A. L. R.2d 1316 .")
- Press, Margaret. A Scream on the Water: A True Story of Murder in Salem.
- B. Berg, Criminal Investigation, McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2007
- The dictionary definition of corpus delicti at Wiktionary