Definition of ‘Corpus Delicti’
Corpus delicti is a centuries-old common law principle requiring the State to establish that a crime actually occurred prior to a defendant’s confession to the alleged crime being admitted into evidence.
The phrase ‘corpus delicti’ literally means ‘body of the crime.’ Franqui v. State, 699 So. 2d 1312 (Fla. 1997) (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 344 (6th ed.1990). The term is regularly used in appellate decisions to mean the legal elements necessary to show that a crime was committed. Syverud v. State, 987 So. 2d 1250, 1251 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008).
Florida law requires that the corpus delicti be established independently of any confession before the confession is admitted into evidence. Bassett v. State, 449 So. 2d 803 (Fla.1984); Frazier v. State, 107 So.2d 16 (Fla.1958).
Stated another way, “no criminal conviction may be based upon an extra-judicial confession by the defendant himself unless there is prima facie evidence of the corpus delicti of the crime independent of the statement.” McQueen v. State, 304 So. 2d 501, 502 (Fla. 4th DCA 1974).
Rationale for Corpus Delicti
The primary reason for the requirement that the proof of the corpus delicti of the crime be introduced before the admission of the defendant’s statement is to protect the defendant from being convicted of a non-existent crime due to derangement, mistake, or official fabrication. Modeste v. State, 28 So. 3d 179 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).
In other words, corpus delicti prevents punishment for non-existent wrongs, and prohibits the State from obtaining convictions on the sole basis of a police officer’s allegation that a defendant confessed to a criminal act.
Proving Corpus Delicti
In order to prove corpus delicti in Florida, the State must establish:
- That a crime of the type charged was committed; and
- That the crime was committed through the criminal agency of another. See State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 825 (Fla.1976).
With regard to the first prong, the State has the burden of proving by “substantial evidence” that a crime was committed. Allen, 335 So. 2d at 824; Snell v. State,939 So.2d 1175, 1178-1179 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). Each element of the relevant offense must be established through independent evidence. Burks v. State, 613 So.2d 441, 443 (Fla.1993).
Each Element Must be Shown
Although the “substantial evidence” standard does not require the proof to be uncontradicted or overwhelming, it must at least show the existence of each element of the crime. Snell, 939 So. 2d at 1179.
Circumstantial evidence may be offered to satisfy this burden. Allen, 335 So.2d at 824.
Use of Inculpatory Statements
Inculpatory statements themselves cannot be used to establish corpus delicti. Modeste v. State, 28 So. 3d 179 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).
Crimes with Knowledge Element
Where knowledge is a component of a criminal offense, corpus delicti requires the prosecution, independently of the confession, to present evidence satisfying the knowledge element. Numerous Florida Appellate decisions illustrate this principle:
- McQueen v. State, 304 So.2d 501 (Fla. 4th DCA 1974) (holding that the mere fact that a defendant pawned a stolen item was insufficient to prove corpus delicti where there were no other facts showing defendant’s knowledge that the item was stolen);
- Ruiz v. State, 388 So. 2d 610, 612 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980) (reversing a conviction for accessory after the fact to murder where corpus delicti was not satisfied with regard to the knowledge element);
- Hutton v. State, 332 So. 2d 686, 687 (Fla. 1st DCA 1976) (stating that, in a prosecution for receiving stolen property, corpus delicti cannot be satisfied with regard to knowledge by mere proof that a defendant possessed recently stolen property).
Order of Proof at Trial
With regard to the order of proof at trial, Florida law requires that the corpus delicti be established independently of any confession before the confession is admitted into evidence. Franqui, 699 So. 2d at 1317 (citing Bassett v. State, 449 So.2d 803 (Fla.1984); Frazier v. State, 107 So.2d 16 (Fla.1958)).