Corpus Delicti?: Forensic Dimensions of the No-Body Murder

Corpus Delicti?: Forensic Dimensions of the No-Body Murder

Anna Chaussée (University of Winchester, UK)
Copyright: © 2023 |Pages: 36
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9668-5.ch008
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Corpus delicti, or body of evidence, is a fundamental to criminal prosecutions. This contribution takes a more literal perspective by exploring the ‘no-body murder'. Body disposal is not a single event; it is a complex process that dynamically responds to social and environmental circumstances. This contribution explores the legislative response to no-body murders through the Prisoners Act 2020 and presents six dimensions explaining non-disclosure of location of victim remains. Four high-profile no-body cases are presented, demonstrating the complexities inherent in searching for the long-term missing, presumed dead. This chapter focuses on the offender deposition strategy, the operational response, and environmental dimensions that explain prisoner non-disclosure and the failures to detect clandestine depositions.
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In January 2021, the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 was enacted in England and Wales. Part of the act codifies the duty of the parole board to make a public protection decision for those serving life sentences for murder or manslaughter cases where the prisoner fails to disclose the location of the victim's remains, colloquially referred to as 'Helen's Law'. There are many reasons why a body may not be recovered beyond the psychological explanations offered in the literature. Yet these factors have not been reflected in debates surrounding the Prisoners Act 2020. The following aims to contribute a forensic perspective dealing with no-body murder convictions by offering an explanatory framework using prominent UK case studies featured within the news media over an extensive period. This chapter highlights environmental and investigative realities impacting body recovery. It presents the factors that may account for search complexities beyond psychological models and challenge the perceived erosion of a fundamental principle enshrined in the adage 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.'

Some may hold the erroneous assumption that a murder conviction cannot be returned if there is no-body. This notion misunderstands the corpus delicti principle, which refers to the evidence of a crime having been committed rather than the actual body involved in a crime. A no-body murder refers to the disappearance of an individual where no other explanation explains their disappearance other than having been killed. A case remains a no-body murder until the point the body is recovered. However, producing the body is not a legal requirement for homicide convictions in the UK.

There are several reasons why an offender might not reveal information relating to the location of the body they have subjected to clandestine deposition. Media representations of non-disclosure have focused on the control and power of the offender over those in authority and the loved ones of the missing (e.g. “Helen's Law: Killer Refused Parole for Failing to Disclose Where Body Hidden,” The Guardian 2021) (see additional news reporting on the disappearance of Helen McCourt, and the Moors Murders). Research conducted into the devastating impact on families is recognized as ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999, 2006). Academic exploration into no-body murder has understood psychological components such as control and power as reasons for non-disclosure (Jansen-Osmann & Berendt, 2005; Janzen, 2006; Ryan et al., 2020). An offender may choose to disclose information at a time that is beneficial to them and when it might be used as leverage. Other explanations include the offender being in denial or they may not remember. There may be a risk of revealing aspects of the crime (additional aggravating factors such as a sexual motive), or the extent of their previously unknown offending is too great. The prisoner may also perceive non-disclosure as assisting an application for an independent case review by innocence projects or review commissions in the hope of an appeal or even a future acquittal. What has not been represented in the debate is that the offender might be of limited assistance because of external factors impacting the accurate identification of a location, perhaps because of the deposition environment or investigative barriers.

What follows holds its central premise that body disposal is not a single event; it is a complex process that dynamically responds to a set of circumstances. The chapter provides the necessary background into no-body murder convictions and legislation that impacts how no-body murders are dealt with post-conviction. Dimensions affecting the recovery of the bodies of those subject to clandestine deposition are explained, and case studies are presented to illustrate the environmental and investigative barriers involved. These environmental and investigative themes provide nuance to previously over generalized representations of non-disclosure.

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