Can a person be convicted of murder without a body?
A common misconception among the general public is that a person cannot be convicted of murder if a body is never found. The truth is that most states do not require that a body be found in order to convict a person of murder.
The California case of Dave Hawk is an example of how a person can be convicted of murder. Mr. Hawk was convicted of killing his ex-wife Debbie Hawk after the woman went missing from her Hanford home in June 2006. Debbie Hawk's body was never found but that did not stop the jury from convicting Mr. Hawk of murder in 2009.
Another example of prosecution for murder is the case of an Arizona woman, Jerice Hunter. Ms. Hunter is being prosecuted for the murder of her daughter. The 38 year old Glendale, AZ woman was arrested in September 2012. Law enforcement believes that Ms. Hunter killed her daughter and dumped the body in a landfill however the body was never found.
The Hunter case was in the news recently because Judge Daniel Martin granted the defense attorney additional time to prepare for trial after Ms. Hunter's previous attorney was removed from the case because he had not been paid. I found the name of the judge to be interesting because my name is Daniel Martin and I am a criminal defense attorney, however there is no relation.
There are various types of evidence
Murder cases are not unique when it comes to rules of evidence. The general rule is that all relevant is admissible unless otherwise excluded. What exactly does that mean? Well it means that if something tends to prove or disprove a fact that is disputed then it is admissible.
Prosecutors can prove that a person is dead by introducing various types of evidence. Obviously the easiest way to prove that a person died is bring in the coroner and ask him or her questions about the autopsy. If you think about it though, they don't actually bring the body into court because the person is usually buried or cremated by then.
Instead of calling the coroner to prove that a person is dead the prosecutor can call family members and friends to testify that the person would never just disappear without telling anyone , In the Hawk murder trial there was evidence of Debbie Hawk's vehicle left abandoned in Fresno, CA. The jury apparently came to the conclusion that Debbie was killed and that Dave Hawk killed her.
I have represented a number of people in murder cases but none of the cases involved a victim that had not been found. It is much more common to have other types of 'direct evidence' missing. For example drugs get destroyed prior to trial. Additionally the person's mental state is almost always proved by circumstantial evidence because the defendant usually does not admit to having the required state of mind.
For example a person that enters a business to steal merchandise inside is guilty of commercial burglary. In most cases the person does not admit that they went into the store to steal. The prosecutor must prove that the person intended to steal when they entered the business to obtain a conviction for commercial burglary. To prove the person's intent they will introduce circumstantial evidence like the fact that the person had no cash on them when they entered the business, or they brought a pair of clippers with them so they could cut off the theft deterrent devices.
Circumstantial evidence is probably the most common form of evidence. There is a jury instruction that deals with circumstantial evidence. Essentially it explains circumstantial evidence with a hypothetical that goes something like this... If a person came inside a building wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella and there were water drops on the raincoat, there would be circumstantial evidence that it was raining outside.
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that tends to prove something that itself makes it more or less likely that another fact is true or untrue. Due to it's nature circumstantial evidence must be treated with caution. Jury instructions caution jurors to be careful when evaluating circumstantial evidence, if the evidence can show that a person is guilty or innocent then the jurors are instructed to adopt the interpretation that suggests that the person is innocent.
An experience criminal defense attorney can explain how direct and circumstantial evidence applies to each individual case and he can make the jury question the evidence.