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Understanding Corpus Delicti in California Criminal Cases

January 13, 2020

The latin term is used in criminal law to mean the “body of the crime.”

Understanding Corpus Delicti in California Criminal Cases

If you are a fan of legal dramas, you may have heard the phrase “corpus delicti.” It may seem like it is referring to a corpse — which would limit its use to murder cases. Yet the term is much broader. Corpus delicti means the body of the crime. It can include almost anything, from a broken arm in an assault case to a stolen checkbook in a theft case. In murder cases, the body of the person who was killed is part of the corpus delicti.

In California, corpus delicti must be proven in every case. There are two elements to corpus delicti: (1) an injury, loss or harm to someone and (2) illegal activity that caused it. Under the corpus delicti rule, corpus delicti must be established every case, and cannot be based only on the accused’s confession or statements about the alleged crime or on statements of accomplices or co-conspirators.

This rule may seem unnecessary. After all, in order to get a conviction, the prosecutor will have to prove these things anyways. But it serves an important purpose: to prevent people from being prosecuted because they admitted to a crime that never actually occurred. Because the prosecutor has to prove the “body of the crime” and cannot rely exclusively on a confession or statements, they cannot prosecute someone who may make an incriminating statement — but there is no other evidence that a crime even happened.

Consider a situation where a person is found dead in their car, parked along the side of a road. The cause of death is undetermined. In this case, the first part of corpus delicti exists — an injury or harm to someone. However, a prosecutor may have difficulty demonstrating that illegal activity caused this injury or harm. Unless the prosecutor can show that the person died due to an illegal activity, corpus delicti cannot be proved. A skilled murder defense lawyer in San Bernardino, CA may argue that there is no corpus delicti, and the case must be dismissed as a result, in cases such as these.

If a prosecutor does use the confession or statement of a person accused of a crime at trial, then there is another element to the corpus delicti rule. The jury must be instructed that the defendant cannot be convicted based only on their out-of-court statements, and there must be other evidence to prove that the crime happened. However, the other evidence only has to be “slight” and sufficient to support a reasonable inference that a crime was committed. In the above example, if there is evidence that the person who died in their car was robbed before their death, it may be sufficient to support an inference that a crime occurred.

The corpus delicti rule can be complicated, particularly in cases where the “body of the crime” may not be readily apparent. A seasoned murder defense lawyer in San Bernardino, CA can investigate the case thoroughly to develop a strong defense to the charges.

If you have been charged with murder or another felony crime, the Chambers Law Firm is here for you. We will aggressively defend your rights and work to help you obtain the best possible outcome for your case. Contact us at 855-397-0210 or dchambers@clfca.com to schedule a free initial consultation.

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