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Corpus delicti is a legal doctrine in the Western system of jurisprudence. The term literally means “body of the crime” in Latin. Specifically, corpus delicti is the fundamental facts that prove a crime has actually been committed. Corpus delicti law requires that proof of a crime be established before guilt can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and a conviction obtained. At a minimum, it must be proven that a specific injury has happened and the injury was the result of criminal activity.
The term sometimes is incorrectly thought to apply only to a dead body. Corpus delicti, though, is actually a broad legal concept that can be applied to any material evidence or proof of a crime in criminal cases. There is a corpus delicti for every criminal offense, from robbery to larceny to tax evasion to murder. For a person charged with arson, the corpus delicti is the burned property. When an individual is charged with theft, it is proof that property was stolen.
There is agreement among most scholars that the corpus delicti doctrine dates to 17th century England. It was developed in response to cases in which defendants were executed for the murders of people who later were found to be alive. Historically, its purpose was to keep individuals from being unjustly convicted. In the Western jurisprudence system, several legal principles have been derived from the doctrine.
One of the major repercussions of the doctrine is the effect it has had on rules regarding the admissibility of evidence. For example, many legal jurisdictions have a rule that a defendant’s confession alone is not enough to prove his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An ancillary rule is that a defendant cannot be convicted based only upon the testimony of an accomplice.
Exceptions to this doctrine do exist. In some cases, it is possible to prove the fundamental facts that a crime has been committed based on circumstantial evidence. If the prosecution can put forth circumstantial evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed, a defendant can be found guilty in the absence of direct or conclusive evidence.
In the United States, the corpus delicti rule is being reconsidered. The federal court system and at least 10 states have abolished the doctrine. Replacing it is a corroboration rule requiring the prosecution to provide only some independent evidence that a crime has been committed, even if that evidence does not definitively establish that a crime has occurred.
Although the term does not necessarily refer to a dead body, I've read that some states do require a dead body as corpus delicti evidence in order to prosecute a murder charge. Texas is one of them, maybe?
I read a book called The Murder Room about elite detectives that solve cold homicide cases as a hobby and just to make the world a better place. In one case, no body was found, so they thought they could not charge the suspect.
But ultraviolet light revealed huge quantities of blood in the apartment, and they were able to test some with DNA to show whose it was. Then they got experts to testify that no human could survive losing that much blood, and were able to go ahead and prosecute with the argument that all the blood was the equivalent of a body.