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Conviction for murder in the absence of a body is possible; although historically, cases of this type have been hard to prove, the prosecution must rely on other evidence, usually circumstantial. Recent developments in forensic science make it less likely that such a murder will go unpunished.



The rule in English common law that a body is necessary to prove murder is said to have arisen from the "Camden Wonder" case which occurred in the 1660s. A local official vanished and after interrogation, which possibly included torture, three individuals were hanged for his murder. Shortly afterwards, the supposed victim appeared alive and well, telling a story of having been abducted and enslaved in Turkey. The rule "no body, no murder" persisted into the twentieth century.[1]

In 1937, however, a young girl called Mona Tinsley disappeared and Frederick Nodder was suspected of having killed her; he claimed that she had been alive when he last saw her, and on the basis of the rule was prosecuted only for abduction. Tinsley's body was found some time later and Nodder was then prosecuted for her murder; his defence was that he had already been acquitted of this charge, but this plea was rejected and he was hanged.[2]

The idea that a body was required to prove murder was John George Haigh's mistake. Already a convicted fraudster, he believed that dissolving a body in acid would make a conviction for murder impossible. In 1949, however, the remains of his last victim, a Mrs. Durand-Deacon, were found to contain part of her dentures; from this, her dentist was able to identify the remains, and Haigh was hanged.[3] Haigh had misinterpreted the latin legal phrase corpus delicti (referring to the body of evidence which establish a crime) to mean an actual human body; this was one of the first instances of forensic science being used in such cases.[4]

Abolition of "no body, no murder"

The rule was finally abolished for practical purposes in the UK with the 1954 case of Michail Onufrejczyk. He and a fellow-Pole, Stanislaw Sykut, had stayed in the United Kingdom after the Second World War and ran a farm together in Wales. Sykut disappeared and Onufrejczyk claimed that he had returned to Poland. Bone fragments and blood spatters were found in the farm kitchen, although DNA technology was then insufficiently advanced to identify them. Charged with Sykut's murder, Onufrejczyk claimed that the remains were those of rabbits he had killed, but the jury disbelieved him and he was sentenced to death, but reprieved.[5] He appealed,[6] but this was dismissed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, saying that "things had moved on since the days of the Camden Wonder"[1] and also

"… it is equally clear that the fact of death, like any other fact, can be proved by circumstantial evidence, that is to say, evidence of facts which lead to one conclusion, provided that the jury are satisfied and are warned that it must lead to one conclusion only."[7]

The United States case of People v. Scott 176 Cal. App. 2d 458 (1960) held that "circumstantial evidence, when sufficient to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis, may prove the death of a missing person, the existence of a homicide and the guilt of the accused".[8]

More recent cases

More recently, absence of a body has been less of an obstacle to conviction for murder. For example, circumstantial evidence was originally deemed sufficient in the Australian "Dingo baby case", and in others such as Bradley John Murdoch and the murder of Thomas and Jackie Hawks. In the 2002 murder of Danielle Jones, the required circumstantial evidence was provided by forensic analysis of text messages sent by the accused.
However, the possibility of the supposed victim turning up alive remains. In 2003, Leonard Fraser, having allegedly confessed to the murder of teenager Natasha Ryan, was on trial for this, and other murders, when she reappeared after having been missing for four years.[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b Morton, James (3 June 2003). "No body of evidence". The Times. Retrieved 2008-12-22.  
  2. ^ "The Execution of Frederick Nodder - Lincoln 1937". Retrieved 2008-12-22.  
  3. ^ "John George Haigh - Acid Bath Killer". Retrieved 2008-12-22.  
  4. ^ "The Trial of John George Haigh" (Notable British Trials series) ed. by Lord Dunboyne, Hodge, 1953, especially p. 17 of the introduction.
  5. ^ "A grisly history of Welsh murders". 27 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-28.  
  6. ^ reported as R v Onufrejczyk 1955 1 All ER 247, 1955 1 Q.B. 388
  7. ^ cited in Baughman v The Queen [2000] UKPC 20 (2000-05-25) at para. 46
  8. ^ "Direct Evidence of Corpus Delicti". JSTOR. Retrieved 2008-12-22.  
  9. ^ "Alleged Australian murder victim found alive". The Guardian. 11 April 2003. Retrieved 2008-12-22.  

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