May a person be convicted of homicide if the victim’s body is never found?

The bonus reprints continue; this was originally published several years ago in First Draft, newsletter of the SinC Guppies chapter, then lived on my website in the Questions of the Month.

May a person be convicted of homicide if the victim’s body is never found? 

Yes. With no body, prosecutors must rely on other evidence to establish that the crime alleged occurred and the defendant committed it. Both direct evidence–such as confessions and eyewitness testimony–and circumstantial evidence–such as blood stains and testimony of related events–may be used.

The U.S. Supreme Court first acknowledged that a person could be convicted of homicide without a body in 1834. Of course, in modern cases, DNA evidence may be critical.

In a recent Montana case, prosecutors alleged that Martell severely beat the victim, Red Dog, then threw his body into the mostly frozen Missouri river. Witnesses testified to the beating. Searchers were unable to find Red Dog’s body, but did find his ripped jacket and bloody sweatshirt. A hunter testified to seeing blood stains in the road where the beating occurred. Prosecutors also relied on Martell’s written statement admitting that he instigated the fight and had told his partner in the beating that they “couldn’t let [Red Dog] go” alive.

In another case, prosecutors alleged that Moore shot Brisbin in Moore’s camper. Witnesses said Moore had called Brisbin and asked him to come to the camper; he hadn’t been seen since nor his body found. Within two days of Brisbin’s disappearance, Moore cleaned blood from his camper, discarded bullets and carpet, covered and repaired bullet holes, and spilled battery acid in the camper in an effort to cover and clean stains. A bullet was found under the floor of the camper. (The shooting and conviction occurred before DNA analysis became available.) On appeal, the court agreed with prosecutors that Moore’s actions showed consciousness of guilt, much like evidence of flight after a crime, and the evidence was relevant to the jury’s decision because it “tended to prove” both the commission of the crime and Moore’s responsibility.

Other cases have turned on testimony about death threats and years of domestic abuse, blood-spatter evidence, a bloodstained revolver, bits of tissue, recent life insurance purchases on the victim, and elaborate lies told to explain the victim’s disappearance.

In your stories, keep in mind that where there is no body, you must show that the crime occurred–that is, the victim is probably dead–as well as showing that your character committed the crime. The evidence you rely on must go directly to the heart of the case, the res gestae or “things done.” Put the missing person in direct contact with the defendant, as with Martell’s beating of Red Dog, or Moore’s phone call to Brisbin. If you use physical evidence from the homicide scene, put both victim and killer together at or near the scene. Complicate matters by involving another person, as in Red Dog’s murder, or with evidence suggesting that the victim often disappeared on his own for weeks at a time. Show that the killer had the opportunity to dispose of the body–or frustrate detectives with evidence that he had no time to hide it.

Because bodyless cases are hard to prove, they often turn cold. Your story may benefit from a tenacious detective or prosecutor, a forensic analyst, or a determined relative. Find ways to put your witnesses in a position where they need to talk–or need to stay silent. In real life, no body sometimes means no conviction. But in fiction, it can make for a terrific story.