The Anatomy of Florida’s Corpus Delicti Doctrine
Corpus delicti is one of those not-so-glamorous topics that tends to fall through the academic cracks in many law schools. In fact, before having to focus on this subject as a novice prosecutor, my knowledge of it was limited to what my bar exam review instructor had taught me: Corpus delicti is always the wrong answer to an evidence question. In practice, corpus delicti can be one of the most important, but frequently misunderstood, topics in criminal law. The purpose of this article is to review the general law of corpus delicti with a focus on its practical application in Florida criminal cases.
The Corpus Delicti Rule
Corpus delicti, which means “the body of a crime,” is a common law doctrine that requires the state to prove that a crime has been committed before allowing a defendant’s extrajudicial ( i.e., out of court) confession to be admitted into evidence in a criminal trial. “Corpus delicti does not mean dead body, as often assumed by laymen, but the body or substance of the crime. Every offense has its corpus delicti, and independent proof thereof is needed for homicide and non-homicide offenses such as arson, bribery, burglary, conspiracy, false pretenses, incest or larceny.”1 If the corpus delicti “rule” is not satisfied, a confession cannot come into evidence.
Analytically, corpus delicti is both a rule of evidence and a rule of substantive criminal law.2 It is a rule of evidence because it prohibits the admission of a particular piece of evidence—a confession—without other proof. It can be viewed as a rule of substantive law because it prohibits a criminal conviction, as a matter of law, if the prosecution has not proven the corpus delicti. Thus, in a Florida criminal trial it is possible that a jury would hear nothing about a defendant’s confession, even if it were clear that the defendant voluntarily, knowingly, and willingly walked into his or her local police station, waived all Constitutional rights and completely confessed to committing a crime. In fact, if the state’s only evidence is a confession, criminal charges may not even be filed.
A great deal of misunderstanding surrounds the proper application of the corpus delicti rule because, in practice, both prosecutors and defense attorneys tend to distort it to suit their own purposes. On the one hand, prosecutors sometimes argue that the rule only requires them to produce “corroboration” before a defendant’s confession may be admitted. On the other hand, defense attorneys sometimes argue that the rule requires the state to prove each and every element of the crime charged, beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt, before a confession may be admitted. While both of these variants summarize the operation of the corpus delicti rule in other jurisdictions, neither reflects the current law in Florida.
History and Rationale
A brief review of the rule’s history and rationale can be helpful when confronted with a corpus delicti issue in practice. Legal historians trace the origins of the corpus delicti rule to a 1661 English murder prosecution known as Perry’s Case.3 There, the victim’s body was never found but three codefendants were convicted of murder and executed based largely on one codefendant’s confession. Unfortunately, the supposed murder victim turned up alive and well shortly after the executions. A similar situation occurred in the United States in the early 1800s. In the case of Stephen and Jessee Boorn, the supposed murder victim resurfaced just in time to prevent his alleged murderer from being executed.4 Unfortunate cases such as these led the courts to develop what we know today as “the corpus delicti rule.”
The original English corpus delicti rule was limited to murder cases, but American courts expanded it to apply to all kinds of criminal cases.5 In Florida it appears that a corpus delicti issue arose for the first time in a published opinion in 1894.6 Today, nearly every American jurisdiction has some version of the corpus delicti rule in place. Surprisingly, the requirements of the rule vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and there is a distinct federal version of this doctrine which is substantially different from Florida’s.7
further three general policies: 1) to protect the mentally unstable from being convicted as a result of untrue confessions; 2) to ensure that innocent people are not convicted as a result of coerced, involuntary “confessions”; and 3) to promote more thorough law enforcement work by requiring authorities to find evidence beyond a confession.8 The Florida Supreme Court has explained the policy reasons for the corpus delicti rule as follows: “A person’s confession to a crime is not sufficient evidence of a criminal act where no independent direct or circumstantial evidence exists to substantiate the occurrence of a crime. The judicial quest for truth requires that no person be convicted out of derangement, mistake or official fabrication.”9 As the Fifth District explained, “the traditional purpose of the corpus delicti rule was to ensure that a defendant would not be convicted solely on a mistaken confession to a crime that did not occur.”10
It is important to note that corpus delicti is a common law rather than a Constitutional doctrine. Although one commentator writing in the 1960s predicted that the Warren Court would find that the Constitution required some version of a corpus delicti rule, this has not occurred.11 No court has ever found a Constitutional “right” requiring the corpus delicti rule to be satisfied in a criminal case.12
Consistent with the common law, Florida law requires the state to “prove the corpus delicti” before a defendant’s extrajudicial confession will be admissible in a criminal case. “The corpus delicti is made up of two elements: (1) that a crime has been committed, as for example, a man has been killed or a building has been burned; and (2) that some person is criminally responsible for the act.”13 Although various Florida Courts have phrased the corpus delicti rule in slightly different ways, the substance is essentially the same in every case.14
Essential Element One: A Crime Has Been Committed
In order to understand the first aspect of the corpus delicti rule (that a crime has been committed), two Florida Supreme Court cases must be carefully considered: State v. Allen, 335 So. 2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976); and Burks v. State, 613 So. 2d 441, 443 (Fla. 1993).
Allen was charged with driving a vehicle from which a passenger, Curtis Black, was thrown and killed. There were no eyewitnesses to the crash, but Allen confessed that he was the driver and Black was the passenger. To admit the confession at trial the state relied on various circumstantial evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule. Allen was convicted on two counts of manslaughter, one by culpable negligence and one pursuant to a statute relating to driving while intoxicated. Allen’s sole contention on appeal was that before his confession was admitted the state had not proven that he was driving the vehicle from which Curtis Black was thrown and killed.
In affirming Allen’s conviction the Florida Supreme Court held that “[t]he state has a burden to bring forth ‘substantial evidence’ tending to show the commission of the charged crime. This standard does not require the proof to be uncontradicted or overwhelming, but it must at least show the existence of each element of the crime.15 Thus, to prove corpus delicti, Allen appears to require the state to come forward with “substantial evidence” supporting each technical element of the precise crime charged. However, a closer examination of the case law suggests that this requirement may not be quite so strict.
Burks v. State, 613 So. 2d 441 (Fla.1993), was a DUI-manslaughter case. There, the defendant admitted to law enforcement at the scene of the accident that he was the driver of the vehicle, and that he had been drinking heavily all evening. In a footnote the Supreme Court clarified Allen as follows:
The crime of which the elements must be proven need not be the exact crime charged. As we pointed out in State v. Allen, 335 So. 2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976): It is a fundamental principle of law that no person be adjudged guilty of a crime until the state has shown that a crime has been committed. The state therefore must show that a harm has been suffered of the type contemplated by the charges (for example, a death in the case of a murder charge or a loss of property in the case of a theft charge), and that such harm was incurred due to the criminal agency of another. Thus, it is sufficient if the elements of the underlying crime are proven rather than those of the particular degree or variation of that crime which may be charged. (emphasis added).
For purposes of satisfying the corpus delicti rule, Burks seems to require only that the state come forward with “substantial evidence” that a crime “of the type contemplated by the charges” has occurred. In practice, this more general requirement is very different from a requirement that the state produce “substantial evidence” supporting each technical element of the precise crime charged.
Essential Element Two: Some Person Is
The second element of the corpus delicti rule requires the state to show “that some person is criminally responsible for the act.” A burned structure, without more, does not necessarily mean that the structure was burned by a person; perhaps it was struck by lightning or an electrical malfunction caused the blaze. Similarly, a dead body, without more, does not necessarily mean that the victim was killed by another person; perhaps the victim died of natural causes, suicide, or was maimed by a falling object or wild animal. Thus, “[i]t is not sufficient [for the state] merely to prove the fact that the person died or the building burned, but there must be proof of criminal agency of another as the cause thereof.”16 In short, the second element of the corpus delicti rule simply requires the state to show that a person committed the crime.
However, it should be noted that “identity” is not an element of the corpus delicti. It is settled that “[t]he concept of corpus delicti embraces the fact that a crime has been committed by someone. . . without embracing the further fact (needed for conviction) that the defendant was the one who did or omitted the act or was otherwise responsible therefor.”17 For purposes of satisfying the corpus delicti rule, “the proof need not show the specific identity of the person who committed the crime. That is, it is not necessary to prove that the crime was committed by the defendant.”18
As the many published opinions show, the identity issue can be confusing for lawyers and courts. In 1976 the Florida Supreme Court, in Allen, 335 So. 2d at 824–25, recognized and attempted to clarify the confusion among Florida courts on this issue:
In its opinion in this proceeding, the First District Court of Appeal appears to have adopted a legal standard which requires overwhelming proof by direct evidence that the crime charged was committed and that the defendant is the guilty party.. . . This was error which requires reversal, and we reaffirm that circumstantial evidence may be presented prior to admission of a defendant’s confession in order to establish the occurrence of the necessary elements of the alleged crime. We also reject the implication in the district court’s opinion that identification of the defendant as the guilty party is a necessary predicate for the admission of a confession. (Emphasis added)
This means that if the state can establish the corpus delicti—by showing that a crime was committed by some unnamed person—the defendant’s own confession can be used to establish that the defendant was in fact the person who committed the crime.
Burden of Proof
A second common area of confusion in corpus delicti cases arises when considering the burden of proof. The Florida Supreme Court has held that in order to admit a confession, the state must bring forth “substantial evidence” of the corpus delicti.19 This level of proof is clearly something less than the familiar “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard and Florida courts have said so explicitly. “The state’s burden of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is a requirement to establish the defendant’s guilt, not to authorize admission of his confession.”20 The corpus delicti rule “does not require the state to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before his or her confession may be admitted.”21 Moreover, it is settled that “corpus delicti may be established by direct or circumstantial evidence.”22
A cursory review of the case law on corpus delicti burden of proof can be misleading. For example, some opinions seem to support the argument that Florida law requires proof of the corpus delicti by the more rigorous “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.23 However, what this means is that the state must prove the corpus delicti, beyond a reasonable doubt, by the end of the case to sustain a conviction. But, as noted above, in order to admit a confession the state is required only to bring forth “substantial evidence” of the corpus delicti. Although this distinction is still causing confusion today, it was explained by the Florida Supreme Court almost 40 years ago:
[T]he term corpus delicti encompasses a dual aspect. On the one hand, there is the requirement that there be sufficient evidence introduced by the state tending to prove the. . . essential elements of corpus delicti before the jury will be permitted to consider any admission or confession of the defendant. When the term is used in this sense there is no requirement for proof of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt. It is enough if the evidence tends to show that the crime was committed, the only question being whether the evidence of corpus delicti is prima facie sufficient to authorize the admission or the confession.
The second requirement regarding corpus delicti is that at the conclusion of all the evidence in a particular case there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the essential elements of the corpus delicti.24
Order of Proof
Problems sometimes arise when the state attempts to admit a confession without having first established the corpus delicti. Some published opinions have held that “Florida law requires that the corpus delicti be established independently of any confession before the confession is admitted into evidence.”25 However, in practice this requirement is not always followed.
While it is certainly the better practice to establish the corpus delicti before attempting to admit a confession, failure to do so is not fatal to the state’s case. The Florida Supreme Court has held that “the order of proof in such cases is generally within the discretion of the trial court.”26 In Allen, 335 So. 2d at 825, the Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed that “it is preferable that the occurrence of a crime be established before any evidence is admitted to show the identity of the guilty party, even though it is often difficult to segregate the two.”27 Where a confession is admitted prior to the corpus delicti having been established, a subsequent showing by the state will cure a premature admission.28
If the state attempts to introduce a confession without satisfying the corpus delicti rule it is essential for defense counsel to object at trial. Although an earlier case from the Second District allowed corpus delicti to be raised for the first time on appeal, in 1998 the Florida Supreme Court held that a corpus delicti objection must be made at the trial court in order to preserve the issue for appeal.29
of Corpus Delicti
Oftentimes the only proof of corpus delicti is circumstantial. However, it is settled that the corpus delicti rule can be satisfied by direct or circumstantial proof.30 Homicide cases where the dead victim’s body is never found are an excellent illustration of this concept. In such a case the accused murder’s confession may be admitted if the state can show through circumstantial evidence that a) a person died; b) the death was caused by the criminal agency of another; and c) the identity of the deceased.31
In sum, to admit an extrajudicial confession the corpus delicti rule requires the state to come forward with “substantial evidence” that 1) a crime “of the type contemplated by the charges” has occurred and 2) “some person is criminally responsible for the act.” If this rule is satisfied, an extrajudicial confession may be admissible in a criminal trial.32
Despite the corpus delicti rule’s continued vitality in Florida, it is no secret that various courts and commentators have been calling for its abolition for quite some time. As early as 1918 Judge Learned Hand questioned the necessity for such a rule.33 Although Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called for abolishing the rule in a dissenting opinion in Burks, the Florida Supreme Court recently refused the state’s invitation to do so in J.B. v. State, 705 So. 2d 1376, 1378 (Fla. 1998).34 In the 2000 session of the Florida Legislature two bills included provisions to relax or abolish the corpus delicti rule in money laundering and sexual abuse cases.35
Today, there is no doubt that Florida law requires the state to satisfy the corpus delicti rule in all criminal cases ranging in seriousness from a juvenile prosecution charging a minor with possession of alcohol to first degree murder.36 Because the outcome of a criminal case can easily turn on whether a confession is admitted at trial, a thorough understanding of the Florida corpus delicti doctrine is essential for every criminal lawyer. q
1 Perkins, The Corpus Delicti of Murder, 48 Va. L. Rev. 173, 179 (1962).
2 Mullen, Rule Without Reason: Requiring Independent Proof Of The Corpus Delicti As A Condition Of Admitting An Extrajudicial Confession, 27 U.S.F. L. Rev. 385 (1993).
3 14 How. St. Tr. 1311 (1660); Mullen, supra note 2, at 399–402.
4 The Trial of Stephen and Jessee Boorn, 6 Am. St. Tr. 73 (1819); Perkins, supra note 1, at 174–175.
5 Mullen, supra note 2, at 401.
6 See Lambright v. State, 34 Fla. 564, 16 So. 582, 585 (Fla. 1894).
7 A complete discussion of federal law on this issue is beyond the scope of this article. However, since the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84 (1954); and Smith v. United States, 348 U.S. 147 (1954), the federal courts have abandoned a strict corpus delicti rule in favor of a “corroboration” requirement. Pursuant to this line of authority, the defendant’s confession must be corroborated but “the corroborative evidence need not be sufficient, independent of the statements, to establish the corpus delicti.” Opper, 348 U.S. at 93.
8 Mullen, supra note 2, at 40.
9 State v. Allen, 335 So. 2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976).
10 Franklin v. State, 718 So. 2d 902 (Fla. 5th D.C.A. 1998) (citing State v. Allen, 335 So. 2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976)).
11 See Margolis, Corpus Delicti: State of Disunion, 2 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 44, 45 (1968).
12 Mullen, supra note 2, at 389.
13 Nelson v. State, 372 So. 2d 949, 951 (Fla. 2d D.C.A.), cert.denied, 396 So. 2d 1130 (Fla. 1979).
14 See, e.g., Allen, 335 So. 2d at 825 (“The state therefore must show that a harm has been suffered of the type contemplated by the charges [for example, a death in the case of a murder charge or a loss of property in the case of a theft charge], and that such harm was incurred due to the criminal agency of another.”); Finney v. State, 550 So. 2d 1194 (Fla. 1st D.C.A. 1989) (“The corpus delicti of a crime essentially consists of showings both of the fact that the crime charged has been committed and that some person is criminally responsible for it.”)
15 Allen, 335 So. 2d at 825 (emphasis added).
16 Nelson, 372 So. 2d at 951.
17 McIntosh v. State, 532 So. 2d 1129 (Fla. 4th D.C.A. 1988) (citing LaFave and Scott, Criminal Law, Ch. 1, §1.4(b) (1986)); see also Ruiz v. State, 388 So. 2d 610, 611 n.3 (Fla. 3d D.C.A. 1980); Jones v. State, 360 So. 2d 1293, 1299 n.4 (Fla. 3d D.C.A. 1978); Franklin, 718 So. 2d 902 (“Contrary to Mr. Franklin’s claim otherwise, the state was not required to establish his identity as the killer as a part of the corpus delicti in this case because the identity of the perpetrator of the crime is not an element of corpus delicti in a homicide case.”)
18 Franqui v. State, 699 So. 2d 1312, 1317 (Fla. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S.Ct. 1337 (1998).
19 Allen, 335 So. 2d at 825.
20 Id.; Meyers v. State, 704 So. 2d 1368 (Fla. 1997).
21 Allen, 335 So. 2d at 825; Buenoano v. State, 527 So. 2d 194, 197 (Fla. 1988).
22 McIntosh, 532 So. 2d 1129 (citing Bassett v. State, 449 So.2d 803, 807 (Fla. 1984)); Fridovich v. State, 489 So. 2d 143, 146 (Fla. 4th D.C.A. 1986).
23 Schwab v. State, 636 So. 2d 3 (Fla. 1994).
24 Jefferson v. State, 128 So. 2d 132, 135 (Fla. 1961).
25 Franqui , 699 So. 2d at 1317 (emphasis added).
26 Spanish v. State, 45 So. 2d 753 (Fla. 1950) (citing Anderson v. State, 3 So. 884 (Fla. 1888); and Holland v. State, 22 So. 298 (Fla. 1897)). See also 24 Fla. Jur. 2d Evidence and Witnesses §505 (1995).
27 See also, Schwab, 636 So. 2d at 6 (citing Spanish v. State, 45 So. 2d 753 (Fla. 1950), for the proposition that “in many cases. . . the proof of the corpus delicti and the guilty agency are shown at the same time.”)
28 McIntosh, 532 So. 2d 1129 at 1131.
29 J.B. v. State, 705 So. 2d 1376, 1378 (Fla. 1998).
30 Bassett v. State, 449 So. 2d 803, 807 (Fla. 1984); Mackerley v. State, 754 So. 2d 132 (Fla. 4th D.C.A. 2000); State v. Lindsey, 738 So. 2d 974 (Fla. 5th D.C.A. 1999); Williams v. State, 689 So. 2d 393 (Fla. 3d D.C.A. 1997).
31 Franklin, 718 So. 2d 902; Myers, 704 So. 2d at 1369.
32 Satisfaction of the corpus delicti rule, of course, does not make a confession automatically admissible. Other evidentiary and substantive requirements must also be satisfied. A detailed discussion of these requirements is beyond the scope of this article.
33 Daeche v. United States, 250 F. 566, 571 (2d Cir. 1918).
34 According to Justice Shaw, “The corpus delicti rule has outlived its usefulness and should be discarded.. . . The rule requiring that the corpus delicti be proved before a confession can be admitted is an anachronism. It is a technicality that impedes rather than fosters the search for truth. I would therefore recede from cases requiring that the corpus delicti be proved before a confession can be admitted into evidence and adopt the “trustworthiness” test announced in the above cases.” Burks, 613 So. 2d at 445–46. However, in J.B., 705 So. 2d at 1378, the Florida Supreme Court held as follows: “While we acknowledge that several jurisdictions have abandoned this rule, we conclude that the policy considerations set forth in Burks are still applicable and we reaffirm the requirement that an independent corpus delicti must be established when offering an admission against interest into evidence. As we stated in Burks, the primary policy reason for the rule is that ‘[t]he judicial quest for truth requires that no person be convicted out of derangement, mistake or official fabrication.’ We reject the State’s invitation to abolish the rule.” (citations omitted).
35 See CS/SB 1258 which deals with money laundering and SB 840 which deals with sexual abuse.
36 See, e.g., J.B. v. State, 705 So. 2d 1376, 1378 (Fla. 1998) (minor in possession of alcohol); Meyers v. State, 704 So. 2d 1368 (Fla. 1997) (murder); Wainwright v. State, 704 So. 2d 511 (Fla. 1997) (sexual battery); Miles v. State, 36 So. 2d 182 (Fla. 1948) (arson); Franqui v. State, 699 So. 2d 1312, 1317 (Fla. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S.Ct. 1337 (1998) (robbery); Williams v. State, 117 So. 2d 548, 549, (Fla. 2d D.C.A. 1960) (theft/larceny); Smith v. State, 566 So. 2d 590 (Fla. 2d D.C.A. 1990) (dealing in stolen property); Baxter v. State, 586 So. 2d 1196 (Fla. 2d D.C.A. 1991) (conspiracy); Burks v. State, 613 So. 2d 441, 446 (Fla. 1993) (DUI manslaughter).
Tom Barber is an assistant statewide prosecutor in Tampa, where he prosecutes multicircuit, white-collar criminal activity. He previously served as an assistant state attorney and practiced in the area of civil litigation for five years. He received his undergraduate degree Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Florida and his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
This column is submitted on behalf of the Young Lawyers Division, Stuart N. Ratzan, president, and Brandon S. Vesely, editor.