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Corpus Delicti: Establishing Murder in the Absence of Dead Body

There can be no smoke without a fire. Whoever uttered these words of wisdom could not have fathomed the immense burden this sentence's meaning would bestow upon the legal minds looking to establish a crime in the absence of a very fundamental element. Corpus delicti, the Latin phrase which translates as body of the crime came into being as a doctrine so as to prevent the conviction in those cases where there is insufficient evidence to prove that the crime even took place in the very first place; let alone committed by the accused individuals.

The term legally implies in very layman words:
A crime must have occurred in the very first place in order to establish a charge.

Here, body implies evidence and not a corpse in literal sense[i] although the same shall be discussed a little later. The effect of corpus declicti falls upon the admissibility of confessions. The components of corpus delicti have a close relationship with the role a confession plays in a case.

These components are:
  1. Occurrence of the crime and
  2. The source of the occurrence is the intentional action committed by the accused[ii].
The absence of any of the components render the role of confessions somehow weak as the confession alone cannot establish the guilt in the absence of a corroborative piece of evidence. Thus, the burden it imposes is for the prosecution to carry and the burden is a twin one. Not only the proof of actual occurrence of crime is required, something must point in the direction that establishes the accused individual's guilt regarding the same.

As a rule in its initial phase, an absence of a corpus delicti which is a corroborative piece of evidence, the confession alone was not considered to be of much value, in American legal system however, several exceptions have been made to this trend.

In State V. Nicely[iii], the body of the victim, who was also the defendant's wife was never recovered, however there was no dearth of circumstantial evidence from the victim's blood marks to her car which was found abandoned on a bridge and the defendant's conflicting statements regarding the same. The defendant was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence for the aggravated murder of his wife, which brings us to primarily the genus where the concept of corpus delicti takes a rather tricky position.

It is no doubt that corpus delicti imposes a rider upon the excess reliance upon the confessions by the courts in the cases of culpable homicides, however it has been established over a number of judicial decisions that an absence of body itself may not necessarily mean the absence of corpus delicti or rather the presence of the circumstantial evidence is so formidable that it compensates for the corpus delicti which in the cases of homicides often becomes synonymous with the body.

Therefore, speaking the mind of the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, it is not an invariable rule of criminal jurisprudence that the failure of the police to recover the corpus delecti will render the prosecution case doubtful entitling the accused to acquittal on benefit of doubt. It is only one of the relevant factors to be considered along with all other attendant facts and circumstances to arrive at a finding based on reasonability and probability based on normal human prudence and behavior[iv].

Entering the realm of such cases where in the cases of homicide the recovery of body has not been made, the weight shifts from establishing corpus delicti to establishing an iron-tight link of circumstantial evidences which leaves no doubt so as to the guilt of the accused.

Therefore, in Sanjay Razak[v], where every single evidence on record, from the witnesses to the recovery of the victim's belongings from the appellant's house pointed in the direction of appellant's guilt, the appellant was convicted in the absence of corpus delicti. In a similar case where the Apex Court upheld the conviction of the appellant, it made an interesting observation which could also raise a few eyebrows: But in those times when execution was the only punishment for murder, the need for adhering to this cautionary rule was greater.

Discovery of the dead body of the victim bearing physical evidence of violence has never been considered as the only mode of proving the corpus delicti in murder. Indeed, very many cases are of such a nature where the discovery of the dead body is impossible. A blind adherence to this old body doctrine would open the door wide open for many a heinous murderer to escape with impunity simply because they were cunning and clever enough to destroy the body of their victim.[vi]

There is no dearth of such decisions where the doctrine of corpus delicti has not been treated as an element which cannot be done away with in order to establish the guilt, developing the legal view that it is not a hard and fast rule but merely a safeguard measure, aimed at preventing the miscarriage of justice where there are possibilities of a false conviction. In a possibility where A is convicted for the murder of B in the absence of discovery of a body and seven years later B turns out alive, there could be no graver miscarriage justice against A.

LAST SEEN THEORY: A WEAK CASE
The last seen theory although a term most commonly used while dealing with circumstantial evidence, is usually not considered a very strong piece of evidence when one is looking to establish corpus delicti.

The theory which lays down a presumption of guilt in cases where the victim and the accused were last seen together cannot on its own establish the guilt when there is an absence of other circumstantial evidence corroborating the same so as to pass the beyond reasonable doubt test. In Bolwaram V. State of MP[vii] the case of the prosecution could not be sustained for having relied too much on the last seen theory.

In Rishipal Singh[viii] the in the face of absence of body, the only major piece of circumstantial evidence the prosecution was relying upon was the statement of prosecution witness that the accused was last seen in a car with the victim, however the same could not be corroborated with the help of other circumstantial evidence, leaving the chain of circumstances incomplete and resulting in the acquittal of the appellant/accused.

Thus, when the reliance on circumstantial evidence comes into play, last seen theory is usually not a reliable friend. Bottom line remains, that the absence of corpus delicti or a dead body in homicide cases may not itself prove fatal to the prosecution case, however, in a territory where circumstantial chain of evidence decides the case, the finer details play out.

End-Notes:
  1. Corpus Delicti: Definition & Rule. Study.com. July 18, 2015. https://study.com/academy/lesson/corpus-delicti-definition-rule.html.
  2. CORPUS DELECTI by Smt. Shaik Faizunnisa , Junior Civil Judge, Rajampet
  3. State v. Nicely, 39 Ohio St. 3d 147 (Ohio 1988)
  4. Sanjay Razak v. State of Bihar, Crl. Appeal No (s). 1070 OF 2017
  5. ibid
  6. Ramanand and Ors v. State of Himachal Pradesh, (1981) 1 SCC 511
  7. Bolwaram v. State of MP (Now Chattisgarh), Crl. Appeal 1933 of 1996
  8. Rishipal Vs. State of Uttarakhand, Criminal Appeal No.928 of 2009
Written By: Madhav Anand, 3rd year BA-LLB Student

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