A few questions about "Corpus delicti"

Couple of things about “corpus delicti” that confuse me, and I would rather bunch them all into one thread than a separate one for each:

  • Does corpus delicti only apply at a trial, or does it apply to an arrest or pre-arraignment/preliminary hearing in the first place?
  • Does corpus delicti only apply to state courts, or to federal courts as well?
  • Does a guilty plea make corpus delicti irrelevant? Say John Doe is accused of murder by an informant who tips off the FBI, and he enters a guilty plea when pre-arraigned, but the court still has absolutely no idea who was murdered, when, where, why and how. How do they send him to prison for homicide if they don’t know any facts about the murder?

Some of your questions won’t have a single answer, because the doctrine is different in different jurisdictions. You want to specify one?

For question 1, I think this is true of most US jurisdictions: it’s trial/determination of guilt only. Does not apply at an earlier stage. I think a minority may require proof at a preliminary hearing.

  1. It applies in both, but the rules are not all the same.

  2. As far as I know, corpus delicti applies only to out of court confessions. So I suppose it could affect plea deals like no-contest or Alford pleas, but a true guilty plea would be an in-court admission of guilt.

There’s a couple of corollaries: 1. A person generally can’t be convicted on the statement of an accomplice without corroboration; 2. In some jurisdictions, there’s also an evidentiary issue, where a defendant’s extrajudicial confession cannot be introduced at trial until the existence of the crime has been established.

Also, for #3, there can be preservation of error or appealability issues if the person who pleaded guilty tries to challenge on appeal the sufficiency of the factual basis for the conviction without having raised that issue at the time of the plea.

Good point. Let’s say federal jurisdiction then - interstate crimes, crimes committed abroad, etc.

Too late to edit: Do defendants have a right to see what evidence the prosecution has against them before they enter a guilty/not guilty plea?

Pre-trial it is a matter of habeas corpus, requiring evidence be presented that a crime occurred. Corpus delicti refers to the body of evidence needed to gain a conviction at trial. A judge should not allow a guilty plea unless that body of evidence exists. I think it’s a stretch to find that body of evidence exists when there is nothing but a guilty plea for murdering an unknown person at an unknown time and place based on nothing but the word of an informant.

Not necessarily. First entry of a plea is usually at arraignment, which also might be when counsel is appointed, and it occurs shortly after arrest. The defendant is entitled to discovery of the government’s evidence (both inculpatory and exculpatory) but it can take some time to get it all. But a guilty plea can happen long after the arraignment.

It is rare, and sometimes impossible, to plead guilty at arraignment. Typically, a change of plea hearing is scheduled if the defendant wants to plead guilty at the onset of the case.

Yes, that’s what I was saying.

Yeah, I wasn’t disagreeing, but expanding. You said a guilty plea can happen long after arraignment. I just wanted to add that it almost always is.

Little help for furriner, please. What do US lawyers mean by « corpus delicti » in this context? (It’s not a common term in my jurisdiction.)

Corpus delicti = you cannot convict someone of a crime if you cannot prove that there was even a crime in the first place. I.e., If Amy disappears, you cannot convict James of murdering her if you cannot even prove that she is dead.

What I wanted to know was if there is some watered-down form of corpus delicti that also applies at an earlier stage, like arrest and arraignment. Are warrants even issued for arrest if there is no external evidence of a crime, only some informant’s tip? Can a defendant’s guilty plea even be accepted if no one in the legal system can produce some form of external evidence to confirm that person’s guilt?

Here’s a lengthy list of people convicted of murder without a body being found https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_murder_convictions_without_a_body#United_States

One example is the murder of Logan Tucker https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Logan_Tucker

It’s Latin for “body of the crime.” It is the body of evidence that proves that a crime has been committed but not that any particular suspect is criminally responsible for it. In murder and other criminal homicide cases, the corpus delicti is usually the corpse of the victim and evidence related to it (e.g., stab wounds). However, it is possible, though difficult, to prove a murder has been committed without a corpse in evidence. And the term applies to other crimes besides homicide. For example, in an arson case corpus delicti might consist of the fact that (1) a fire occurred and and that (2) accelerant was intentionally spread beforehand. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_delicti

The details can vary a little by jurisdiction, but basically, it’s a doctrine that requires evidence that a crime occurred, so that a defendant cannot be convicted on either their own confession alone, or based solely on the word of an alleged accomplice.

I believe that, for federal cases, the evidence required is that a harm occurred, and that it was the result of a criminal act.

An example would be if a person has disappeared, and say, the neighbor confesses to killing them and dumping the body in the ocean. If there’s no circumstantial evidence that the person was murdered, neighbor probably won’t be convicted if they object on the basis of the corpus delicti rule. But, if, say, there is a bunch of the victim’s blood in their house – like, too much to survive the loss of – then the rule is likely satisfied.

Yes, understood. Just seems odd to me to hear the phrase being used. We just use phrases like « the Crown’s case » and « onus of proof ». Is « corpus delicti » in common usage in US law-speak?

It is for this specific doctrine. There are other rules about sufficiency of evidence. This specific one is about conviction on the basis of someone’s word alone.

Normally, testimony is sufficient evidence of any fact. But there’s a special rule about it being evidence of all the core facts.

The key thing (as you alluded to above) seems to be whether this confession is out of court or in court. If it is a guilty plea in court, then it totally trumps the corpus delicti?

Prosecutor: “John Doe, your neighbor claims you committed such-and-such a crime, even though we have no evidence of it - who the victim is, when you did it, where you did it, how you did it.”

John Doe: “Yep, I did do it. I plead guilty.”

Judge: “OK, guilty it be. That’ll be 5 years.”

Interesting. Thanks.

Well, I don’t think that would violate the corpus delicti rule, because I understand it to apply only to out of court statements. But I don’t think you could get quite such an untethered conviction.

There has to be a charging instrument specifying the crime and a time frame, for instance, in order for there to be anything for the defendant to plead guilty to.

So the defendant could plead guilty by admitting
in court to committing murder by intentionally killing a person between date and date.

A guilty plea by itself doesn’t mean anything here. With a confession it is different. At least the confession can be considered the body of the evidence, so nothing is being trumped. Otherwise, there is no ‘body’ and any charges would be dismissed. If a judge accepted the guilty plea it would be readily overturned on appeal.