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The Body of Proof in the Bodiless Murder: A History

  • South Carolina v. Lynch is an example of the increasingly rare bodiless murder case
  • Technology is making it easier for investigators to find bodies
The Body of Proof in the Bodiless Murder: A History

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a guest host for In Session and is a an attorney based in Philadelphia.

South Carolina v. Lynch is an example of the increasingly rare bodiless murder case.  Kenneth Lynch was on trial for killing his girlfriend Portia Washington and disposing of her body.  Washington’s  body was never found. Technology has made it easier for investigators to find murder victim’s bodies than it was before cell phone tower pings, cadaver dogs, fingerprints, and DNA. Nowadays, the sophistication of law enforcement plus the unprecedented trail of digital data everyone leaves in our wake every day, diminish the odds of a prosecution without a body.  But they still happen, like in the Lynch trial.

Prosecutors must always prove the corpus delecti: the proof that a crime has actually occurred. It’s why you can’t be convicted of the murder of your neighbor, when your neighbor is very much alive and at work, no matter how much you confess to the killing. In the case of a murder, the corpus is the prosecution’s burden to prove that (1) a person has died; and (2) that death was the result of criminal activity.

The history of these unusual bodiless murder cases dates back to the 1600s:

Perry’s Case (1661): A servant named Perry was sent to search for his master, Harrison, after Harrison went missing. Servant Perry was later found with some bloody items belonging to Master Harrison. Harrison’s body was missing, and when interrogated, Perry gave inconsistent stories. Perry was found guilty of murdering Master Harrison, and hanged. Some time later, Harrison returned with a story that could only happen in 1661, that he was robbed, taken by force to Turkey, and forced into slavery. This might have ended as a sitcom-esque misunderstanding except, well don’t forget that Perry had been hanged. And there is no appeal for that sentence.

People vs. Bierenbaum, (2002): Dr. and Mrs. Bierenbaum had it all; money, prestige, and a home in the swanky area of Manhattan until Mrs. Bierenbaum vanished. Dr. Bierenbaum claimed his wife had gone sunbathing, but added that she had a drug problem and might have run off and started a new life. The prosecution disagreed. Dr. Bierenbaum was tried and convicted of killing his wife, dismembering her body, loading it onto a private single-engine plane, flying it over the Atlantic Ocean, and dumping it into the water.   He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.  He appealed his conviction, but lost.  This case represented the growing trend of courts to permit circumstantial evidence to overcome the absence of that critical piece of evidence of a criminal killing: the body.  

Florida vs. Casey Anthony (2011): People don’t often remember this, but Casey Anthony started out as a bodiless murder prosecution, until Caylee Anthony’s remains were finally found. What’s fascinating about this case is that it illustrates a potential injustice of bodiless prosecutions. One can surmise that Casey Anthony would have been easier to convict without a body, and that her defense position improved once the body was found. Had no body been found, a jury could have used its imagination, and conjured up all kinds of evils to fill in the gaps, and grafted those to Casey. Once the body was found, it actually supplied more uncertainty of the evidence. Instead of ‘What did Casey do with the body after she killed her?’ the question became: ‘Do we even know how this child died?’ And that likely lead to reasonable doubt. Whether you think Casey Anthony was guilty or not guilty, the question arises: Should the prosecution have an advantage in the bodiless murder prosecution? Could that even create an incentive to leave bodies unfound?

Illinois vs. Drew Peterson: Drew Peterson was  convicted of murdering his third wife, and it’s possible that a new prosecution will commence for the murder of his fourth wife Stacy Peterson, with or without a body. Since Peterson has already been convicted of killing one wife, will a future jury assume that he killed the fourth one? And will it be easier to convict him without a body? Possibly. Certainly it would be impossible to convict him if Stacy were found still alive. Of course, most have concluded its likely she’s no longer alive, but without a body, will we ever know?


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