Corpus delicti is a legal rule which refers to the proposition that the prosecution must prove all the elements of an offense (and, thus a crime) before the accused’s out-of-court statements can be introduced as evidence to demonstrate that the accused was the perpetrator. This principle is widely accepted in criminal prosecutions. The purpose of the rule is to ensure that crazy people are not convicted of crimes simply because they made some admission that they committed the crime without further proof.
The rule deals exclusively with the necessary level of proof before an accused’s out-of-court statement can be offered in evidence. “Corpus delicti” is Latin for “body of the crime.”[i] Corpus delicti comes from the common law and is grounded in the principle that a trial is a search for the truth. The rule was designed out of a matter of fairness to protect a person from being convicted merely out of “derangement, mistake, or official fabrication” in the real posibility that defendant confesses to a crime he did not commit. The corpus delicti rule requires the prosecution to present “substantial evidence” of all the elements of a crime before a defendant’s confession can be admitted into evidence.[ii]
False confessions? Well, yes… it happens.[iii] Maybe more than we would like to admit as a society, but it happens and make no mistake, throughout our history as a nation many people have falsely confessed to criminal offenses for whatever reason. Take for instance the high-profile unsolved case known as the Black Dahlia homicide which was from January 1947 in Los Angeles, California. The crime was never solved, but that did not stop many people from coming forward to confess to the offense.[iv] Most of the confessors were deranged persons looking for attention.
The corpus delicti idea is simple: before a confession or admission of guilt may be introduced at trial as evidence to prove the identity of the perpetrator, the government must prove by substantial evidence that a crime was committed independently of the statement. The proof of the crime can be circumstantial.[v]
Here is what this means in practice. Assume arguendo that the government wants to prove that Bob Victim was murdered, and that government also believes that Joe Defendant committed the crime but has no evidence directly linking Joe Defendant to the murder. Additionally, Joe Defendant was not arrested at the scene but after an investigation ultimately led his arrest.
Joe Defendant, during post-Miranda questioning, admits to police that he, in fact, murdered Bob Victim. The case is now at trial. Before the government can admit at trial Joe Defendant’s admission to the murder, the government must show by substantial evidence that:
(a) the Bob Victim is dead, and
(b) that Bob Victim died because of some criminal action or inaction by someone.
The actual identity of the someone does not have to be proven to the jury to introduce the statement. Once these two elements are demonstrated by substantial evidence, then and only then, can the government introduce for the jury that post-Miranda Joe Defendant admitted that he murdered Bob Victim. At that point, it is up to the jury to decide if the jury wants to believe Joe Defendant or not.
In Burks, the Florida Supreme Court explained:
We held, in State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 824 (Fla.1976), that “the state has the burden of proving by substantial evidence that a crime was committed, and that such proof may be in the form of circumstantial evidence.” “This standard does not require the proof to be uncontradicted or overwhelming, but it must at least show the existence of each element of the crime.” Id. at 825. We also determined that the identity of the defendant as the guilty party is not a necessary predicate for the admission of a confession. We explained the policy reasons for the corpus delicti rule: “The judicial quest for truth requires that no person be convicted out of derangement, mistake or official fabrication.” Id. at 825.
Federal court abides by a similar construction when confronted with a corpus delicti issue. The United States Supreme Court in Wong Sun v. United States, explained:
It is a settled principle of the administration of criminal justice in the federal courts that a conviction must rest upon firmer ground than the uncorroborated admission or confession of the accused. (footnote omitted) We observed in Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147, 153, 75 S.Ct. 194, 197, 99 L.Ed. 192, that the requirement of corroboration is rooted in ‘a long history of judicial experience with confessions and in the realization that sound law enforcement requires police investigations which extend beyond the words of the accused.’ In Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 89-90, 75 S.Ct. 158, 162-163, 99 L.Ed. 101, we elaborated the reasons for the requirement:
‘In our country the doubt persists that the zeal of the agencies of prosecution to protect the peace, the self-interest of the accomplice, the maliciousness of an enemy or the aberration or weakness of the accused under the strain of suspicion may tinge or warp the facts of the confession. Admissions, retold at a trial, are much like hearsay, that is, statements not made at the pending trial. They had neither the compulsion of the oath nor the test of cross-examination.’[vi]
The idea is that confessions or admission can be manipulated when the out-of-court statement is recounted. It is referred to as an “out-of-court statement” because the statement is not made in front of the judge and jury, sworn, under penalty of perjury. Being the case, the law requires some sort of corroboration before the out-of-court statement can be admitted. As to what “corroboration” means in terms of evidence, that is another question for another day. At the very least, there must be some other, independent evidence other than the statement to prove the crime.
Corpus delicti is an issue that comes up from time to time in various types of prosecutions. For instance, a prosecution for driving under the influence where there is no witness that can place the accused behind the wheel of the car driving. If the state cannot prove that the accused was driving the vehicle or in actual physical control at the time of the offense independently of the accused’s statement, then the state cannot prove corpus delicti and the case must be dismissed, and the accused discharged.[vii] Another example is conspiracy to traffic in cocaine. “[T]hus, in order to establish the corpus delicti of conspiracy, the State must present “substantial evidence that the defendant and a coconspirator agreed to commit a crime and that the defendant intended to commit the offense.” State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 835 (Fla. 1976). Corpus delicti may not be established solely by a confession, but confessions and admissions are properly considered in connection with other evidence to establish corpus delicti. Hodges v. State, 176 So.2d 91, 92 (Fla.1965); (further citations omitted).[viii] If the prosecution’s theory is that the statement itself is the conspiracy and the crime (without some overt act), then the crime of conspiracy is not proven. Another example is child abuse and/or lewd or lascivious molestation where there is no independent direct or circumstantial evidence to prove the crime. In other words, if the alleged victim of the offense does not testify that the offense occurred, the defendant’s confession is inadmissible to prove the crime.[ix]
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
Corpus delicti is a simple concept that is often overlooked in many prosecutions. If you think that you or your loved one’s case might have a corpus delicti issue, please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss the matter.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
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[ii] See State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 824 (Fla. 1976); and Burks v. State, 613 So.2d 441 (Fla. 1993).
[iii] https://innocenceproject.org/false-confessions-recording-interrogations/ (Innocence Project- False Confessions) or https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/06/psychologist-explains-why-people-confess-crimes-they-didn-t-commit
[iv] https://www.wired.com/2016/05/false-confessions/ Why People Confess to Crimes They Didn’t Commit. Jennifer Chaussee. Science. 05.24.16. See also 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping/homicide and 1996 JobBenét Ramsey homicide.
[v] See State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 824 (Fla. 1976); and Burks v. State, 613 So.2d 441 (Fla. 1993).
[vi] Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 488-9, 83 S.Ct. 407, 9 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963).
[vii] Elser v. State, 915 So.2d 637 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005).
[viii] Chaparro v. State, 873 So.2d 631 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004).
[ix] State v. Tumlinson, 224 So.3d 766 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016).