Saturday, March 22, 2008


Corpus Delicti

In my search for a new job, I sometimes resort to head-hunters and body-snatchers, also known as corporate recruiters. It is the fashion these days for corporate recruiters to require applicants to take online tests. A few months ago I took one of these tests, and in the section on legal terminology a multiple choice question asked the meaning of corpus delecti. This is of course a mistake for corpus delicti ("body of the crime," or "the fact of a crime having been actually committed," Black's Law Dictionary). Over 900 examples of corpus delecti appear as a result of a LexisNexis search for the phrase. Some examples, it is true, are followed by "[sic]," but many are not. A search of Google Books shows this spelling mistake not only in law reporters, but also in some legal textbooks.

The noun delectus in Latin belongs to the fourth declension and therefore has no form delecti. There is also a perfect passive participle delectus, from the verb deligo (choose), and delecti could be a masculine or neuter genitive singular of that participle, or a masculine nominative plural. If the phrase corpus delecti meant anything, it would thus mean "the body of the man who was chosen."

Obviously many people who should know better (such as those who compose questions for tests) don't know the correct spelling of corpus delicti. Others don't have any idea what the expression means, and still others wrongly think it means the corpse in a murder case. Ignorance of the correct meaning caused the downfall of British serial killer John George Haigh, who mistakenly thought that it meant a corpse. Haigh's nom de gore was the Acid Bath Murderer. He reasoned that if he destroyed the dead bodies of his victims in acid, there would be no corpse; if no corpse, no corpus delicti (an error); and if no corpus delicti, no murder conviction.

If Haigh had lived in another time or another place, he might have gotten away with murder. Consider the pronouncement of English jurist Matthew Hale:
I would never convict any person of murder or manslaughter, unless the fact were proven to be done, or at least the body found dead.
2 Hale, Pleas of the Crown 290 (1678). In 1819 the outcome of a Vermont case seemed to justify Matthew Hale's insistence on the need for a body in a murder conviction. A jury found the Boorn brothers, Jesse and Stephen, guilty of murdering Russell Colvin. Fortunately Colvin turned up alive before the Boorns were executed. 6 American State Trials 73 (J. Lawson ed. 1916).

As might be expected, opponents of the death penalty often cite the Boorn case. I recently noticed a similar situation in an ancient Greek lawsuit (Isocrates, Against Callimachus 52-54, tr. George Norlin):
Cratinus once had a dispute over a farm with the brother-in-law of Callimachus. A personal encounter ensued. Having concealed a female slave, they accused Cratinus of having crushed her head, and asserting that she had died as a result of the wound, they brought suit against him in the court of the Palladium on the charge of murder. Cratinus, learning of their plots, remained quiet for a long time in order that they might not change their plans and concoct another story, but instead might be caught in the very act of committing a crime. When the brother-in-law of Callimachus had made accusation and Callimachus had testified on oath that the woman was actually dead, Cratinus and his friends went to the house where she had been hidden, seized her by force and, bringing her into court, presented her alive to all present. The result was that, in a tribunal of seven hundred judges, after fourteen witnesses had given the same testimony as that of Callimachus, he failed to receive a single vote.
Matthew Hale's legacy persisted for many years, and some states actually passed laws requiring a corpse for a homicide conviction, e.g. this statute from Texas (1925 Penal Code § 1204), not repealed until 1974:
No person shall be convicted of any grade of homicide unless the body of the deceased, or portions of it, are found and sufficiently identified to establish the fact of the death of the person charged to have been killed.
John George Haigh committed his murders in England between 1944 and 1949. If he had committed them in Texas during those same years, he might have been immune from conviction by reason of the statute just cited.

Nowadays convictions for murder are possible even if the body is never found:
The fact that a murderer may successfully dispose of the body of the victim does not entitle him to an acquittal. That is one form of success for which society has no reward. Production of the body is not a condition precedent to the prosecution for murder.
People v. Manson, 139 Cal.Rptr. 275, 298 (App. 2nd Dist. 1977), cert. denied 435 U.S. 953, 98 S.Ct. 1582, 55 L.Ed.2d 803 (1978).

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?