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Corpus Delicti: Definition & Rule

Instructor: Erica Hutton

Dr. Erica Hutton is a Criminal Psychologist & Profiler; she teaches collegiate courses in Psychology & Criminal Justice & holds a PhD in Criminal Justice.

Corpus delicti is a common law rule that was initiated over 300 hundred years ago in order to protect those in England who were innocent or even confessed to crimes that they never committed. Read on to learn more about this rule and then take a quiz.

What is Corpus Delicti?

Corpus delicti is a Latin phrase that means body of the crime. The phrase body here does not only pertain to a possible corpse, but actually relates to any form of evidence, so it is important to remember that there is both a literal and figurative association. In regards to criminal investigations, this concept means that there should be enough evidence to prove that a crime occurred in order for an individual to be charged for the offense.

Applications of the Rule

Why was the rule designed? It was established to help prevent individuals from being charged with an offense they didn't commit. In addition, the rule provides a certain amount of protection for those individuals who suffer from mental illness or mental instability and who may have confessed to a crime they did not even commit. False confessions, although they don't happen all the time, do take place.

Corpus delicti applies to all crimes, but it is considered to be an especially important concept within any murder investigation. There should be a body or at least a body of evidence for police to work with before they charge someone with a crime. When someone goes missing and these two things don't exist, police often have a difficult time charging a crime; if there isn't a body or at least evidence present to prove there was a death, then a person is most likely considered to be a missing person or a runaway rather than a homicide victim.

However, it should be noted that the prosecution within such an investigation will aim to charge for a conviction of guilt in a homicide case even if the body is not located, just as long as there is substantial circumstantial evidence present that ultimately leads beyond a reasonable doubt.

For example, if you were a suspect within a murder case, it would be really difficult for an attorney to charge you with murder when they are unable to locate a body or sufficient evidence proving that you committed such an act. However, if your cell phone contained incriminating information that was associated to you being the responsible party or co-conspirator in a crime like murder, then all cards are off the table and you can most certainly be prosecuted. Remember, there does not have to be a body present if enough supporting or circumstantial evidence is present.

But what exactly is circumstantial evidence? This is when there is enough association or link between several factors and these factors infer that something took place. Such associations may be perceived as truth, evidence, and factual in nature, without the admission of any additional evidence.

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