Corpus delicti is the legal term, which refers to the body of the offense or the essence of the crime. Most literally, corpus delicti is the term used to refer to the actual victimâ€™s body in a murder case.
Corpus delicti is also a term that can be used to mean any material evidence of a crime or objective proof in a criminal case. The laws of corpus delicti relate to what must be proven in a case to elicit an acquittal or conviction.
The Burden of Proof
Corpus delictiâ€”from the Latin meaning "body of evidence"â€”is the proof that a crime has taken place. When applied to a criminal case, proof of a crime must be shown in order to convict a person of the crime.
The presentation of corpus delicti is often necessary in a criminal case to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charges against him/her. The prosecution in a criminal case has the burden of proving each element of a crime in order to secure a conviction.
The following are a few examples of how corpus delicti principles apply to a criminal case:
- When a person is charged with larceny, the corpus delicti is proof that property was stolen.
- When a person is charged with the crime of arson, the corpus delicti is the burned property or evidence that arson was attempted.
- In a murder case, the corpus delicti is the dead body of the victim.
The Establishment of Corpus Delicti
The principle of corpus delicti was established to protect persons from being unjustly convicted of a crime they did not commit. Historically, there have been cases where a person was charged and convicted of murder, then put to death for their crime.
The person who they allegedly killed made an appearance after the defendant was killed. In order to avoid falsely convicting an innocent person, proof of corpus delicti is generally required in order to convict a defendant.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. In certain cases, it may be admissible to prove the basis of corpus delicti based on presumptive ( circumstantial) evidence rather than conclusive evidence.
If the prosecution can show presumptive evidence of corpus delicti beyond reasonable doubt, the defendant can be found guilty even if the actual body of the crime cannot be directly presented.
The first U.S. case where conviction was made without absolute evidence of corpus delicti took place in 1850 in the murder trial of John Webster. This set the precedent for other defendants to be convicted of a crime without absolute proof of corpus delicti. It is important to bear in mind that in all criminal trials, the evidence must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
The Supreme Court in Badshah & Ors. v. State of U.P., Cr. Appeal No. 554 of 2005 categorically held that in the event of murder of an abducted person, either by direct or presumptive evidence, an inference of murder can safely be drawn in respect whereof it would not be necessary to prove the corpus delicti.
[Badshah & Ors. v. State of U.P., Cr. Appeal No. 554 of 2005 decided on February 12, 2008]