I wanna get him off
November 9, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me with a fictional plot: I want a character to commit a murder, and then (after some mental turmoil etc lasting several months) hand himself in to the police. However, with no evidence of this murder, and with as little as possible description of police procedure on my part, I want the guy to be released. What would be the smoothest way to achieve this?

Brief outline of the crime (though it is not written as a crime but more of a random impulse): male character has argument with his somewhat melodramatic girlfriend on a bridge above water during which she climbs railings pretending (maybe) she might jump, at which point the guy gives her an angry shove. She falls and that's it.

I want to deal in the usual murder business as little as possible. I am under the impression (based I have to admit on little more than Richey Edwards' disappearance) that it is realistic for someone to fall into a large river and have their body never be found.

I have the dead woman as a foreigner (the story is set in the UK) with no family and few friends. She has lived with the main character in the UK for some time, and though they have been somewhat isolated they have had some interaction with neighbours etc.

Several months after she dies, I want the main character to go to the police about this, seeking relief from other circumstances. Ideally, I'd want him released in the morning, flattened and back into those difficulties. But, realistically, what would happen in this situation? How long would the police keep him? How far reaching would their investigations be? Alternatively, how can I tweak this to achieve what I am after?

(This would be in the UK, I will mention again, if that is relevant.)
posted by cincinnatus c to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
What about if the police had found the body, but something led them to arrest someone else? Maybe if she had sex with someone else prior to dying and they used the DNA, or someone else had a motive and no alibi. Or maybe something from her past in the foreign country gives reason that someone would want to kill her? Or the guy has an alibi so the police don't believe him--someone stole his credit card and used it across town at the moment when she died? Or maybe there's security cam footage of the bridge, but by accident the guy walked only in blind spots so it looks like the woman is alone and crazy, talking to herself.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 12:55 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the easiest way to fix this is to have the policeman that receives him at the station be someone who is aware of his other troubles, and have that person simply not believe him, and turn him away since he knows he's just trying to get out of his other troubles, and doesn't want to waste any of the public's money on his scam or something.
posted by Grither at 12:57 PM on November 9, 2010


You will want the police to have already released all the details of the crime, so there are no details the character can reveal to the police to prove his involvement, like what she was wearing, etc.
posted by Jairus at 1:01 PM on November 9, 2010


What if they never found her body? And the alternate story is that she ran off (back home?) and that he is making up her death so he won't have to wait seven years for her to be declared dead / get an abandonment-divorce (I have NO idea if either of those things are real or applicable)? Other things that may be applicable: location -- small towns may not have the resources, but then a big city might be too swamped too care; race / class -- going along with location, some members of some police forces might not really care if someone of the wrong color / class died.

Or maybe they DID find a body, but they can't scientifically confirm that it was her (no medical records, etc), and she's too far gone to be recognized. Or if they found her and thought she was a DIFFERENT victim, and there's no established record of her or that this guy was ever married to her. Then he just looks crazy like he needs attention and a warm bed for the night.
posted by motsque at 1:01 PM on November 9, 2010


How about it turns out his girlfriend had used a fake name/passport so the name he knows her by has no records associated with it. The police can't find the body, can't find any corroborating evidence that this woman even existed, so they think he's insane.
posted by bluejayk at 1:04 PM on November 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't know if the facts would match what you need, but I immediately thought of John Mark Karr, the (then-)guy who confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey.
posted by Madamina at 1:05 PM on November 9, 2010


Perhaps the victim had a recent documented history of suicide ideation/attempts/is on antidepressants... I hate to play to that stereotype, but people with mental illness issues sometimes do fall trough the cracks, and it may be just easier for the police to close the case with a plausible suicide and chalk up a boyfriend confessing to a murder months later as unreasonable guilt.

essentially, making the victim as "undesirable" to the power structure as possible will result in less concern. So.. .foreigner + few/no friends to advocate for her + known mental illness + ?, the more you add the less motivation there will be to devote time to the issue.
posted by edgeways at 1:05 PM on November 9, 2010


If she officially doesn't exist in the country (ie has overstayed a visa or is otherwise there illegally) then that's an additional reason the police could find no evidence a crime actually took place, but my understanding is that (unlike the USA), your departure in the UK is recorded, so she would have pulled a more sophisticated scam than just not bothering to leave once the visa expired.

Find out what the usual tricks are of illegal immigrants in the UK. It's presumably a well trodden path with common tricks to overstay in the UK without getting flagged.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:06 PM on November 9, 2010


I know absolutely nothing about police procedure anywhere, let alone the UK specifically. All the same, if I was reading a story where a man confessed to a murder and was released without comment the next day, my suspension of disbelief would be shattered.

I can't imagine that the police wouldn't do at least enough of an investigation to discover that the woman did indeed exist and had indeed not been seen in several months. Once those facts are turned up, I can only imagine the confession would be treated very seriously, probably quickly progressing to dredging the river for a body.

There are a couple of tweaks you could do to make a quick release seem more plausible:

1. Make it so that the girlfriend was in the country illegally or was living under a false name (whether the protagonist knew this or not). If the protagonist confesses to killing someone and a cursory investigation by the police shows no indication of that person ever existing, it would be more believable (though perhaps not more realistic) that the confessor would be let go. You could even go a step further by having the police call up the neighbours and have those neighbours say that they don't remember any such person as the girl ever living there. Of course, you'll need to explain this too (maybe the neighbours are just unobservant and addlepated, but you'll want to reaffirm this elsewhere). This has the bonus of potentially making the protagonist think he's going crazy.

2. Make it so that a cursory investigation by the police shows that the girlfriend is still alive and well (even if this isn't the case). Perhaps someone in the old country has coincidentally stolen her identity and is leaving a paper trail. This has the bonus of potentially making the protagonist wonder if the girl in fact survived. Maybe he even becomes worried that she might return to exact revenge.
posted by 256 at 1:10 PM on November 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I remember reading a James Ellroy book in which kooks started coming out of the woodwork to confess to a murder, simply because they were crazy and wanted some attention (think of the alleged Jon Benet confessor). Maybe your guy can't prove he was at the scene and gets lumped in to that crowd. Bonus points if someone gives him a fake and unrequested alibi.
posted by Gilbert at 1:16 PM on November 9, 2010


Maybe somebody else has already been arrested and convicted for the crime, and it is somebody who has done much much worse things but the police have never been able to nail him or her for them and so they're using a trumped up charge and some planted evidence to nail the person who was already arrested and this guy who confessed is only messing stuff up for the cop who finally nailed this other criminal he's spent months hunting.
posted by synecdoche at 1:22 PM on November 9, 2010


I know absolutely nothing about police procedure anywhere, let alone the UK specifically. All the same, if I was reading a story where a man confessed to a murder and was released without comment the next day, my suspension of disbelief would be shattered.

When I said I wanted him released the next day, I didn't necessarily mean the next day: what I really meant was within a couple of paragraphs. However long it would take chronologically is not important and in fact could be up to a year. I just want there to be no physical evidence of a murder, even if there is evidence that the woman has disappeared, and for the man to be released... eventually.
posted by cincinnatus c at 1:24 PM on November 9, 2010


I'd aim for your male character to be incoherent and "off." Maybe you could have him get drunk first to work up the nerve to tell, and stressed as well by something else unrelated, so his references make sense to readers who are in the know, but not to the police listeners. Plus throw in that the police check and find no report of any missing person or discovered body that matches up.

That should get him dismissed from the police station (perhaps with officers wryly or sympathetically suggesting he sober up/see someone for treatment as they send him on his way.)
posted by bearwife at 1:32 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do a bit of reading on false confessions, and methods of detecting false confessions. One reason people falsely confess is if the person interviewed by police is highly suggestible, or coerced by leading questions. So you could have the interviewing detectives misbehave in some way during the interview (to where the confession wouldn't stand up in court), while at the same time the guy confessing is behaving erractically or as though he is being led. This way the higher ups may just want to sweep the whole thing under the rug, painting the suspect as unreliable and/or disturbed.
posted by JenMarie at 1:37 PM on November 9, 2010


Ok, a combo of 256 and bearwife:

1. Guy seems a little crazy or behaves in a way that makes cops think he's delusional.

2. Dead girl was in the country illegally, using an assumed name (that guy was unaware of), no body has been found, and no one fitting her description has been reported missing.
posted by SamanthaK at 1:41 PM on November 9, 2010


Maybe after a couple of months of mental anguish he gets some of the facts wrong. Not necessarily major facts but supporting information like what she was wearing (he remembers his favorite outfit instead of what she really wore), what the weather was like (in his mind it was cloudy but really it was clear), or whatever. That would support the idea that he's a kook.
posted by maurice at 1:56 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lifting from The Wire, and SamanthaK

Guy seems crazy (nervous about the other problems he's facing?), dead girl can't be found, name is wrong, in the country illegally and, the police are being pressed from some politician to "juke" the stats, or underreport murders for the sake of improving their statistics. Why take on another murder case if this could reasonably be suicide, or just a guy making something up?
posted by fontophilic at 1:59 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tough question, because most people go the other way around and include all the procedural stuff.

I don't know about the UK, but there's probably some kind of "Habeas Corpus" (produce the body) rule in place in common law. Meaning no evidence, no crime.

Add to that the advice above to make her someone without legal status and that no one is looking for, and that the guy should be an obvious mess and come off as possibly mental, and you've got an "I tried to confess to her murder, but no one believed me; they don't even believe that (Marie) exists!"

Remember Poe's the Tell-Tale Heart? If the guilt-stricken guy told the police that the body was under the floorboards, and they looked but nothing was there, then they'd thank him for his time, depart, and leave him alone to go quietly mad.
posted by bartleby at 2:08 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know about the UK, but there's probably some kind of "Habeas Corpus" (produce the body) rule in place in common law. Meaning no evidence, no crime.

Just so you know, that has nothing to do with habeas corpus. Habeas corpus means produce the body of the detainee/prisoner in court.
posted by John Cohen at 2:32 PM on November 9, 2010


I think 256's idea is a good one. Have the policemen check out this guy's story and find that the 'girl' is alive and well, so they think he's making it up or crazy. Of course, the real girl could be dead and the one that the police talk to is someone posing as her.
posted by amicamentis at 2:43 PM on November 9, 2010


OK, it may be possible to use some ideas above. But, aside from the complexities of the guy having previously demonstrated mentally unstable behaviour, or the girl using false ID, I guess I was asking what would happen if:

Two relatively antisocial people go on a day out (the incident in question is probably taking place off the west coast of Scotland), and one of them (the woman) dies, but her body is lost for good.

The man returns, with no plans, half-expecting a body to turn up, or the police, but instead nothing happens. There are a few acquaintances who might ask where his girlfriend is, to whom he says that she has left him.

Several months later, for certain reasons, he decides to tell the police what has happened. They carry out whatever investigations police would do and find: no body; some people who vaguely knew the couple who say, "I thought she left him"; no evidence of the day out (why would there be after several months?); possibly some friends of hers from her own country who say, "Haven't seen much of her for years, but last I heard she was living with this guy in the UK. Dunno where she is."

The point is, the police mostly believe him, except they've got nothing, and because they've got nothing they might start to wonder. I'm asking what would happen in real life if the police had a confession, evidence of a possibly missing person (though with few ties), and nothing else. The guy would have to go free, no? But under what circumstances and after how long?
posted by cincinnatus c at 3:04 PM on November 9, 2010


I'm not really sure why you think that they would let this guy go free even with limited evidence if he confessed to the crime. But, I am not anywhere near a criminal justice scholar, nor am I familiar with UK law.

It seems like if the police did an investigation that revealed information as you have stated (no physical evidence but friends reporting they haven't seen the girl, people from the old country reporting that she and the man were together) they would have no reason to believe that he hadn't committed the crime.
posted by amicamentis at 3:13 PM on November 9, 2010


I mean, the second half of the story will have the guy being mostly bewildered and shocked that he can have on the spur of the moment killed someone he loves and it comes to nothing: nobody notices and nothing happens. To have a strand of plot in which 'she' was someone else and didn't really exist, or other identity games, would dilute this, I think.
posted by cincinnatus c at 3:14 PM on November 9, 2010


What if he had a habit of telling stories and so the police didn't believe him? Or would that be too close to the boy who cried wolf?

P.S. Richey lives!
posted by elsietheeel at 3:19 PM on November 9, 2010


Make him an asset manager for really wealthy people, so the prosecutors will drop the case because "it may damage the defendant's reputation and thus his career."

True story.
posted by jstarlee at 3:34 PM on November 9, 2010


It seems like if the police did an investigation that revealed information as you have stated (no physical evidence but friends reporting they haven't seen the girl, people from the old country reporting that she and the man were together) they would have no reason to believe that he hadn't committed the crime.

Except that people falsely confess all the time, and homicide detectives usually have their plates full with actual bodies, witnesses, and suspects. If someone off the street with no criminal record comes in to confess to a crime without requisite evidence of a body or even that a crime occurred, and acted a bit unstable, they might have a suspicion something ain't right but not have a way forward. Everything is a dead end, the prosecutor declines to prosecute without a solid case, and more active cases take a front seat. Google "false confessions" for more on the topic.

ps. I also like The Wire reference, with wanting to keep numbers of unsolved cases to a minimum.
posted by JenMarie at 3:40 PM on November 9, 2010


Borrowing from fontophilic's use of The Wire: How about a dispute on jurisdiction between law enforcement agencies? If the river were a border between two cities and he confesses in the wrong city? If Agency A is already put off by his instability and lack of record of the girlfriend they may not bother forwarding the case to Agency B who has proper jurisdiction.
posted by Crashback at 3:51 PM on November 9, 2010


What if part of the police investigation reveals that the guy has a history of some kind of mental illness, maybe a breakdown after a job loss or a parent's death? Or a history of being that guy who calls the police every time someone steps on his lawn or has a loud dog or leaves trash on the curb. One of those, coupled with no body, no evidence and no other witnesses might lead them to believe that there was nothing to the whole thing.
posted by CathyG at 3:53 PM on November 9, 2010


@ John Cohen: oops! I didn't mean Habeas Corpus, I meant Corpus Dilecti. Long day, typing while on the phone.

Corpus delicti (plural: corpora delicti) (Latin: "body of crime") is a term from Western jurisprudence which refers to the principle that it must be proven that a crime has occurred before a person can be convicted of committing the crime. For example, a person cannot be tried for larceny unless it can be proven that property has been stolen. Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.) defines "corpus delicti" as: "the fact of a crime having been actually committed."

So if you confess to killing someone that no one is looking for/missing and there's no body...they'd probably tell you either produce some sort of proof or get on yer bike.

You could even have the guy fall into mortal/existential despair over the fact that if she could be killed and no one would notice or care, he could probably be murdered - or just die - and no one would notice or care. That kind of figurative invisiblilty to the consequences of big-ticket moral actions could lead to some serious cosmic doubt.
posted by bartleby at 4:21 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The point is, the police mostly believe him, except they've got nothing, and because they've got nothing they might start to wonder. I'm asking what would happen in real life if the police had a confession, evidence of a possibly missing person (though with few ties), and nothing else.

In my jurisdiction, a case can't be prosecuted without a "corpus delicti," meaning some evidence beyond a confession corroborating that a crime occurred. This rule has been around a long time, no doubt because people do confess to things that never happened. Also, in most places police need probable cause to hold someone in custody, meaning that a reasonable officer would believe, based on the facts and circumstances known, that a crime has been committed.

So, on the facts as you articulate them, there is no "corpus delicti," and you could have the officers grumbling about the absence of "corpus" or lack of "PC" if you want.

You are going to need to account for why her absence isn't corpus delicti itself . . . there have been successful homicide prosecutions in the absence of a body because other circumstantial evidence strongly suggests foul play. So you're going to need to have a scenario where there just is no evidence at all besides your main character's confession.
posted by bearwife at 4:56 PM on November 9, 2010


You could say that there were CCTV traffic control cameras covering both the entrance and exit of the bridge which would be able to prove that two entered but only one left, but they only keep footage for 6 weeks or whatever before recycling tapes/DVDRs/hard drives/whatever and the footage is gone.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:07 AM on November 10, 2010


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