The Ethics of “No-Body” Murder Prosecutions.

Oh! THERE's the body!!!

Texas lawyer Robert Guest has opined that a Texas jury would have convicted Casey Anthony in a heartbeat, and cites as proof the February conviction of Charles Stobaugh in Denton County. He was accused of killing his  estranged wife, though no body has ever been found at all.

Maybe.  There are a lot of differences in the circumstances of the two cases, not the least is that finding a badly decomposed body with a piece of electrical tape across her mouth has a big advantage over never finding any body at all: at least you are certain that the victim is dead.  Stobuagh, like Anthony, engaged in a pattern of lies and strange statements; for example, he suggested that his wife, who suddenly vanished and stopped using her bank account, credit cards and cell phone, was “playing a prank.”  He also began seeing a new girl friend more or less the moment his wife vanished. I’d say the biggest difference is the presumption of a motive: husbands killing their wives, especially their estranged wives, is a common and well-recognized form of homicide, with a motive that any married person immediately understands. A mother killing her young child, in contrast, is very unusual, and the presumption is that no mother would do it. The Anthony prosecution was more difficult than the prosecution of Stobuagh, even with Caylee’s body.

Still, when a prosecutor has to say things like this in his pitch for a tough sentence, you have to wonder about how a jury was able to get past reasonable doubt to convict:

“He told them to close their eyes and imagine the murder. “You don’t want to do it, but you have to,” he said so quietly that those not in the jury box barely heard him. “You know it was some sort of hand-to-hand thing.”  He said she likely knew she was dying and suffered.  “I’m asking you to close your eyes and imagine it, and then you judge him,” Piel said”

Well gee—if they imagine him giving her sleeping pills, kissing her goodbye, and then injecting her with an overdose of heroine while she slept, I think they’ll go easier on him: that was pretty nice, as murders go. On the other hand, if he chained her screaming to the hot water pipes and sliced off her body parts with a rusty chain saw, stopping periodically to throw salt and Lye on her bloody stumps as he laughed hysterically, that might warrant a tougher sentence.

But maybe that’s just me.

Nevertheless, the absence of a body does not preclude a successful prosecution for murder, nor should it. There is even a blog devoted to “no-body” cases —the No Body Murder Blog—and there are a lot of them: I counted fourteen on the blog since the Stobaugh conviction. The British Common Law required a body for a murder conviction, but that rule began evaporating in both the U.S. and Great Britain during the mid-Twentieth Century. It is difficult to get a conviction without physical evidence that someone died, but it depends on the other evidence. The Texas blog Liberally Lean is obsessed with the Stobaugh case, and the blogger seems to think that the Common Law bar on such prosecutions should still be in force. He is just wrong about that.

Does the Stobaugh conviction mean that the Anthony acquittal (of murder) was wrong, or vice-versa? Of course not. The jurors watched Stobaugh and had no reasonable doubts that he did in his wife, as the prosecution maintained. It could be because they were from Texas, or it could be that watching Stobaugh and his interrogation convinced them that he was a killer. In either case, it wasn’t the same trial, the same jury, the same defendant or the same attorneys, and comparisons are perilous.

Of course, there is always the danger in no-body cases that the victim will turn up alive.  (“Doh!” ) This was the original reason for the British rule banning such prosecutions, stemming from the infamous 1660 “Campten Wonder” case. Three people were hanged for the torture and murder of a William Harrison, who then blithely reappeared two years later, claiming that he had been abducted by three men “dressed in white” and put on a ship to Turkey.  He said he was held there until escaping with a silver bowl that had been given to him, which he sold to secure his passage back to England.

I wonder if he brought back souvenirs. It was the least he could do.

This scenario was also used in a somewhat disturbing Jack Lemmon movie comedy in the Sixties, “How to Murder Your Wife.” Lemmon, a playboy who got married drink and in outspoken about his desire not to be married is acquitted of killing his vanished wife, whose body hasn’t been found. Then she ( the gorgeous Virna Lisi—what the hell is Jack complaining about?) turns  up alive, and they reconcile.  But, he points out, since he cannot be tried for the same crime twice, she better keep him happy, or else. He can kill her any time he wants to, and there’s nothing the law can do about it!

Ha ha. Very funny. For the record, I doubt that.

Update: After this was written, I saw this report about a woman presumed dead for 40 years suddenly reappearing. Fortunately, no body was prosecuted for killing her, presumably because there was no suspect or likely motive.

13 thoughts on “The Ethics of “No-Body” Murder Prosecutions.

  1. Given that you’ve worked in criminal defense, I’d like to ask a question that’s been bothering me: how did the state fail to establish a motive? The presumptive motive was “she was tired of parenting and wanted to party”; I don’t understand how the 31-day-no-call party tour doesn’t wrap that up in a nice little bow.

    • Really? It’s pure speculation. If she had gone on an eating binge, or antiquing, would you say it was clear that she killed her daughter to eat more, or to be able to get more rustic American furniture? Maybe she was parting out of grief…maybe she went nuts. She stopped parenting when she didn’t have a child any more. A previously devoted mother kills her child because she wants to get a tattoo and needs to boogie. Boy, that isn’t a very compelling explanation.to me. If they could have found evidence of her mistreating the kid or neglecting her, or telling people (like Octomom just told Us) that she wished she didn’t have kids, that would have helped.

  2. Jack,
    “On the other hand, if he chained her screaming to the hot water pipes and sliced off her body parts with a rusty chain saw, stopping periodically to throw salt and Lye on her bloody stumps as he laughed hysterically, that might warrant a tougher sentence.”

    That’s rather specific. Given it some thought, have you?

    -Neil

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