When there's no body of evidence...
March 16, 2009 3:58 PM   Subscribe

In the history of American law, what was the earliest known case of a murder suspect being convicted without the police ever having found the victim's corpse?

I know nothing about law, am not a law student myself. But it's for a project I'm working on, and I'd really appreciate some dates and examples of the earliest (and/or most famous) precedents of a successful murder prosecution when there was no dead body to be found.

Only looking for American cases.

posted by np312 to Law & Government (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This article says that the U.S.'s first murder conviction with no body found was in 1957. Skip to the second page:
In the 1957 case, L. Ewing Scott was convicted of murdering his wealthy wife, Evelyn, who disappeared from their Bel-Air home two years earlier.

Prosecutors showed that Scott had been forging his wife's name on checks for living expenses. The only remnants of the 63-year-old woman were her eyeglasses and dentures buried under leaves on property near her mansion.

Scott was sentenced to life, but was freed in 1978. He died seven years later.
More on Robert Leonard Ewing Scott.
posted by hangashore at 4:10 PM on March 16, 2009

Just for clarification, so you don't get all weird answers:

Are you including cases in which the ONLY sign of the person possibly being murdered is total disappearance? No body parts, no blood, no nothing?
posted by hal_c_on at 4:11 PM on March 16, 2009

Best answer: One of the most famous early cases of this sort in the US was the conviction of of Leonard Ewing Scott.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:12 PM on March 16, 2009

Oh, snap, hangashore. I don't think the Scott case was actually the first in the US, though--just the first high-profile one.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:13 PM on March 16, 2009

Best answer: Here's a Columbia Law Review article discussing these issues (JSTOR link). It points to a 1959 case and claims that "no American case heretofore has held the corpus delicti proved solely by circumstantial evidence without an additional showing of either an identification of any remains that are found, direct testimony of means of death, admission of knowledge of death, or a confession of guilt." 61 Columbia Law Review 740, 741 (1961). But that's narrower than your question calls for.

The earliest case mentioned in the footnotes is an 1880 case in which admission of knowledge of death and circumstantial evidence of death were held sufficient when no body was found. People v. Alviso, 55 Cal. 230 (1880).
posted by jedicus at 4:16 PM on March 16, 2009

Best answer: Indeed, Scott was not the first, as this website so carefully documents (Diane Dimond wrote a good piece about the site at HuffPo).

The Sarah Lavinia case of 1843 is almost certainly the first US case in which murder convictions were obtained without a body present.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:19 PM on March 16, 2009

Best answer: Possibly not the right body in the George Parkman murder case, 1849. The body parts found were mixed with medical school dissection discards. Simon Schama wrote about this murder in Dead Certainties.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:35 PM on March 16, 2009

What about HH Holmes' victims? Were all of them found?
posted by melodykramer at 4:59 PM on March 16, 2009

Response by poster: I think the victim's blood is there. So not a complete lack of bodily evidence, I suppose. Sorry for not being specific enough!
posted by np312 at 5:29 PM on March 16, 2009

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