Confessions to Crimes That Never Happened: The Corpus Delicti Rule

by: Jason Osbourn

06/10/2016 02:39 PM EST

Victoria Banks pleaded guilty to manslaughter after she confessed to killing her newborn baby. She, along with two others who also confessed to participating in the crime, were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The problem? Years before her confession, Victoria underwent sterilization and doctors say that it would have been impossible for Victoria to have been pregnant, let alone given birth.

The Corpus Delicti Rule is meant to guard against such convictions, ensuring that people are charged and convicted for crimes which have actually occurred. “Corpus delicti” is a latin phrase meaning “body of the crime.” In the old days it referred literally to the corpse of a murdered person which and defendant could demand the English courts to produce before the defendant could be convicted of murder.

Today, the Corpus Delicti Rule is not quite so strict or grisly and the rule now applies to most crimes, not just murder. The modern definition states that there must be some evidence of each element of the crime other than the confession made by the defendant. People v McMahan, 451 Mich 543, 548 NW2d 199 (1996); People v Burns, 250 Mich App 436, 647 NW2d 515 (2002).

For example, suppose Adam walks up to Officer Brown and says that he just sold 4 ounces of marijuana to Charlie. While Officer Brown may have some questions for Adam and would be within his right to detain him while he conducts an investigation, Adam’s admission by itself is insufficient for Adam to be convicted for delivery of marijuana. It is important to note that the slightest bit of evidence would be sufficient to satisfy the Corpus Delicti Rule: a scale, empty baggie, or trace amounts of marijuana would be enough. As long as the Corpus Delicti Rule is satisfied, prosecution can proceed. Adam’s confession would be admissible and damning.

In practice, the Corpus Delicti Rule serves as a very low bar to prosecution and is rarely invoked. Nevertheless, it is an important safeguard against prosecuting people for crimes that never occurred.

If you have questions about confessions or any other legal matter, call Newburg Law at 517-505-2323.