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Corpus Delicti – No Body, No Crime?

Watching crime movies or t.v. shows might give you the impression that without a body there can be no conviction for murder. Whitey Bulger, the biggest thug in Boston for years liked to say, “No body, no crime.”

This is not always true. Popular fiction implies that the Latin term corpus delicti means that the police must have a body before they can prosecute someone for murder. It literally means the body of the offense.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals discussed this issue at some length in McDuff v. State, 939 S.W. 607 (1997). Kenneth Allen McDuff was a notorious serial killer who kidnapped, raped and murdered women in Central Texas. He and an accomplice snatched a young woman from a car wash in Austin, took turns raping her, before McDuff hit her so hard her neck snapped. Her body was never found.

McDuff got the death penalty, and on appeal argued that there was no evidence of murder in the absence of 1) a body or remains, 2) a confession, and/or 3) non-accomplice testimony of death and cause of death, i.e., there is a failure of proof of the corpus delicti of homicide.

The court rejected that argument. “The corpus delicti of a crime simply consists of the fact that the crime in question has been committed by someone; specifically, the corpus delicti of murder is established if the evidence shows the death of a human being caused by the criminal act of another, and the State is not required to produce the body or remains of the decedent.” There was sufficient non-accomplice evidence to prove guilt – witnesses saw McDuff and his accomplice driving around the car wash, heard a woman scream and a trunk or door slam, and saw the car leave going the wrong way on a one way street. Blood and hair that matched the victim were found in the car.

For more information, contact the Law Office of Richard Ellison, P.C. for a free initial consultation.