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Corpus Delicti Rule: Can You Be Convicted For Murder Without A Body?


Criminal appeals lawyer, corpus delicti rule codified under cpl § 60.50

People v. Lipsky

57 N.Y.2d 560

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: December 14, 1982

Corpus Delicti Rule Codified Under CPL § 60.50

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Attorney 

Issue: Whether under the corpus deliciti rule a conviction for murder can be based solely upon evidence of a confession without direct proof of death where no body was found and other than the confession there was only circumstantial evidence calculated to suggest that the victim was dead and the Defendant was the culprit.

Summary: Defendant confessed to killing victim, Mary C. Robinson. At trial, the Judge found the confession completely voluntary and made in a knowing and reflective manner and the jury returned a verdict of guilty. After trial, Defense moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that there was no evidence other than the Defendant’s confession and admission to establish either the victim’s death or any criminal act of Defendant in relation to her. The trial Judge agreed that there was no direct proof of death other than the confession and dismissed the indictment.

See Also: Criminal Impersonations: The Federal Standard Of Proof For Sufficiency

Holding: The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient when considered in connection with the confession, which met the requirements of CPL § 60.50.

Under Penal Law § 60.50, a person may not be convicted of any offense solely upon evidence of a confession or admission made by him without additional proof that the offense charged has been committed.

For purposes of statute proscribing conviction solely upon evidence of confession or admission without proof that the offense charged has been committed, it is not enough that additional proof partially corroborates the truthfulness of confession; the confession may, however, be used as a key or clue to the explanation of circumstances, which, when so explained, establish the criminal act.

Facts: Defendant confessed to killing victim, Mary C. Robinson at a hotel and dumped the body down a gully. Prior to trial, Defense moved to suppress Defendant’s confession; that motion was denied. The trial Judge found the confession completely voluntary and made in a knowing and reflective manner. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and Defense then moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that there was no evidence other than the Defendant’s confession and admission to establish either Mary’s death or any criminal act of Defendant in relation to her. The trial Judge agreed that there was no direct proof other than the confession and dismissed the indictment.

The Appellate Division affirmed that CPL §60.50 section requiring direct proof in the absence of corpus delicti. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient when considered in connection with the confession, which met the requirements of CPL § 60.50. The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s order and reinstated the verdict.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals relied on two rules. The first is the common-law rule enunciated in Ruloff v. People, 18 N.Y. 179, 184, which held that a Defendant couldn’t be convicted of murder without direct proof of the death or of the violence or other act of the Defendant, which is alleged to have produced death. Although the rule has often been said to preclude conviction for murder unless the body has been found, the Court of Appeals held that that is an oversimplification.

Exceptions were recognized as where the murder had been on the high seas, at a great distance from the shore, and the body had been thrown away. The Ruloff rule was to be warranted by melancholy experience of the conviction and execution of supposed offenders, charged with the murder of persons who survived their alleged murders.

The Ruloff rule is so clearly out of harmony with the general rule that the corpus deliciti may be established by circumstantial evidence, the Court held that they have no hesitancy in overruling it.

The second rule is the confession-corroboration rule of Criminal Procedure Law § 60.50. That section proscribes conviction of any offense solely upon evidence of a confession or admission made by him without additional proof that the offenses charged had been committed. The purposes sought to be served by its provisions is to avert the danger that a crime may be confessed when in fact no such crime has been committed by anyone, People v. Reade, 13 N.Y.2d 42, 45, 241 N.Y.S.2d, 829, 191 N.E.2d 891.

The Court of Appeals held that these two rules shared a common background; the fear of convicting the innocent. The now-defunct Ruloff rule required no more than direct proof, and would have been satisfied by a Defendant’s confession or admission, either of which constitutes direct eyewitness testimony of the Defendant himself. What remains, then, when there is a confession or admission, is only CPL 60.50’s requirement of additional proof that the offense charged as been committed, that is to say, that there be some evidence apart from Defendant’s confession or admission, to establish that fact.

The Court of Appeals held that is it not enough that the additional proof partially corroborates the truthfulness of the confession, People v. Cuozzo, 292 N.Y. 85, 93, 54 N.E.2d 20. The confession may, however, be used as a key or clue to the explanation of circumstances, which, when so explained, establish the criminal act.

Under CPL § 60.50 no additional proof is needed to connect Defendant to the crime, People v. Murray, 40 N.Y.2d 327, 332, 386 N.Y.S.2d 691, 353 N.E.2d 605. Evidence in addition to the confession is, moreover, sufficient even though it fails to exclude every reasonable hypothesis save that of guilt. This statue is satisfied by the production of some proof, of whatever weight, that a crime was committed by someone People v. Daniels, 37 N.Y.2d 624, 629, 376 N.Y.S.2d 436, 339 N.E.2d 139 and conduct of Defendant indicating a consciousness of guilt, such as presence at the scene, proof of motive or flight, may be held to constitute the essential additional proof. In final analysis, the Court of Appeals held that the additional evidence of the crime together with the confession must be sufficient to establish Defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, People v. Conroy, 287 N.Y. 201, 202, 38 N.E.2d 449.

The Court of Appeals held that the evidence in this case was sufficient to present a question to the jury, notwithstanding that the victim’s body has not been found and that, apart from Defendant’s confession and admissions, there was no direct proof of death or of criminal agency. The Court held that the question with respect to circumstantial evidence is whether common human experience would lead a reasonable man, putting his mind to it, to reject or accept the inferences asserted by the established facts.

The Court of Appeals held that the evidence, when read with the Defendant’s confession, sufficiently establishes the victim’s death, and the cause of it to take the issues to the jury. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s order and reinstated the verdict.


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