Category Archives: Corpus Delicti

Corpus Delicti & Murder Confessions

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In State v. Young, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided the defendant’s confession to murder was properly admitted because the State presented ample independent evidence of (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

On the morning of July 4, 2013, John Young entered the Desert Food Mart in Benton City and asked the cashier to call 911 because he had witnessed a shooting of a man named Jacob. Police were summoned. As the investigation proceeded, Mr. Young became a suspect. He was brought in for questioning, and consented to audio and video recording of an interview.

During the interview, an officer read Mr. Young Miranda warnings and obtained his agreement that he understood he was now a suspect and any statements he made could be used against him. Mr. Young then confessed that Jacob was involved in a drug deal gone wrong. With the assistance of an accomplice named Joshua Hunt,  Mr. Young admitted he fired one shot into Jacob’s head near the temple-cheek region, killing him.

Mr. Young also confessed that he and Mr. Hunt disposed of their shoes and gun by putting the items into a backpack and throwing the backpack into a river. Later, police recovered the shoes and gun.  The shoes matched footprints and shoe patterns that had been found in the sand near Jacob’s body. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory determined that all of the bullets recovered from the crime scene had been fired from the Charter pistol found in the backpack.

Mr. Young was charged with first degree murder.

During a 3.5 hearing, Young’s attorney lawyer stipulated to the admission of the videotaped interview, telling the court:

“We believe it’s in our interests to actually stipulate to the 3.5 hearing, and I’ve discussed that with Mr. Young, and I know the Court will make its own inquiries, but he knows and understands he has a right to that hearing, but we believe it’s in our benefit and strategic interest to proceed with the stipulation.”

The court questioned Mr. Young, who stated he understood he had a right to a hearing on the admissibility of the statements but was agreeing instead that all of his statements were admissible.

During trial, Mr. Young’s videotaped confession was played for the jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Young appeals.

Mr. Young argued his defense counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by stipulating to the admission of Mr. Young’s confession when there was no independent evidence apart from his confession, under the corpus delecti rule, sufficient to establish all the elements of first degree murder.

For those who don’t know, corpus delicti is a term from Western jurisprudence referring to the principle that a crime must be proved to have occurred before a person can be convicted of committing that crime.

The Court of Appeals rejected Young’s arguments. It reasoned that in a homicide case, the corpus delecti generally consists of two elements: (1) the fact of death, and (2) a causal connection between the death and a criminal act. It can be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence, which need not be enough to support a conviction or send the case to the jury. In assessing whether there is sufficient evidence of the corpus delicti independent of a defendant’s statements, the Court assumes the truth of the State’s evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in a light most favorable to the State.

Here, the corpus of the crime of murder was amply established by (1) a dead person; (2) multiple gunshot wounds that established a casual connection with a criminal act; (3) testimony eliminating the possibility of self-inflicted wounds; and (4) the recovery of the weapon miles away from the dead body.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the State is not required to present independent evidence of the defendant’s mental state. It reasoned the State is not required to present independent evidence sufficient to demonstrate anything other than the fact of death and a causal connection between the death and a criminal act.

Finally, the Court rejected Mr. Young’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel:

“It appears from his closing argument that Mr. Young’s trial lawyer believed his client’s videotaped interview would advance that argument. Mr. Young fails to demonstrate that his trial lawyer lacked a strategic reason for the stipulation.”

With that, the Court of Appeals confirmed Mr. Young’s conviction.

My opinion? This case represents a fairly straightforward analysis of the corpus delicti defense. I’ve had great success when it applies, and have managed to get many criminal charges reduced or dismissed under this defense. However, the corpus delicti defense is extremely narrow. Aside from the defendant’s confession, there must be virtually NO independent evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Here, other evidence existed which implicated Mr. Young and the defense was found inapplicable.

State v. Dow: Corpus Delicti vs. RCW 10.58.03

Good case.

WA Supremes held that RCW 10.58.035 does NOT change the corpus delicti rule that the State must prove every element of an alleged crime by evidence independent of the defendant’s statement.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=812438MAJ

 Defendant Keith Ian Dow was charged with with first degree child molestation.  The victim was a three year old female, and too young to testify.  Consequently, her statements to others about the alleged offense were inadmissible.  No persons other than Dow and the child were present at the time of the alleged offense.  During a recorded police interview, Dow made statements regarding the events surrounding the alleged molestation.  The trial court found these statements to be exculpatory and not an admission.  The State sought to introduce Dow’s statements as substantive evidence that he committed the crime charged.  Dow moved to exclude these statements, arguing they were inadmissible for lack of  corpus delicti.  The trial court agreed.  Dow’s case was dismissed.  The State appealed.  The case found its way to the Supremes.

Some background is necessary: the corpus delicti doctrine generally is a principle that tests the sufficiency or adequacy of evidence, other than a defendant’s confession, to corroborate the confession.  The purpose of the rule is to ensure that other evidence supports the defendant’s statement and satisfies the elements of the crime.  Where no other evidence exists to support the confession, a conviction cannot be supported solely by a confession.  The purpose of the corpus delicti rule is to prevent defendants from being unjustly convicted based on confessions alone.  Historically, courts have grounded the rule in judicial mistrust of confessions.

Along comes RCW 10.58.035. It allows a statement to be admitted into evidence if there is substantial independent evidence establishing the trustworthiness of the statement.   The following factors determine whether the statement is trustworthy:

(a)  Whether there is any evidence corroborating or contradicting the facts set out in the statement, including the elements of the offense;

(b)  The character of the witness reporting the statement and the number of witnesses to the statement;

(c)  Whether a record of the statement was made and the timing of the making of the record in relation to the making of the statement; and/or

(d)  The relationship between the witness and the defendant.

Here, the WA Supremes reasoned that even if the statements are admissible, no other evidence exists to establish the corpus delicti independent of Dow’s statement. Further, corpus delicti cases have always required sufficient evidence independent of a defendant’s confession to support a conviction.  RCW 10.58.035 does nothing to change this requirement. The State concedes it lacked evidence.  Indeed, the only evidence the State purported to have is Dow’s statement, which is insufficient under any standard.

Consequently, the WA Supremes upheld Dow’s dismissal.

My opinion?  I like the decision.  The WA Supremes dutifully followed corpus delicti and held people shouldn’t be charged with crimes unless evidence exists.  I fear, however, that even though the Court did not allow RCW 10.58.035 to swallow the corpus delicti rule, such decisions may come few and farther in between.  The statute was MADE to chip away at corpus delicti.  Period.  Perhaps it didn’t apply to Dow’s case because his statement was the ONLY evidence the State had.  Future defendants in future cases, however, might not be so lucky.

My prediction?  Future courts may find that if a scintilla of evidence beyond the defendant’s statement exists, then the statute kicks into effect and does away with corpus delicti.  Keep your eyes peeled . . .

State v. Hinshaw: Absent Exigent Circumstances, Cops Can’t Enter Your Home Without a Warrant & Arrest for DUI

Great opinion.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=269001MAJ

Here, the Moses Lake Police investigated reports of a car unlawfully driving on a bike path.  Police search the path.  They find Mr. Hinshaw on a bike close to the path.  He said he was a passenger in the suspect car, but denies driving.  They release him.   Later, the police find the suspect car in his driveway.  It had a flat tire.  They knock on the door.  He answers the door, yet refuses to come out.  He admits to drinking earlier.  Officers grab his arm, go inside of his home, and arrest him for DUI.  They are concerned his BAC level was dissipating.

The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that “exigent circumstances” justified Mr. Hinshaw’s warrantless seizure.  The Court saw several errors in the police officer’s conduct.   First, the officers failed to establish how quickly the BAC would/could dissipate.  Second, the officers could not estimate how long it would take to get a warrant.  Third, although the police had probable cause to believe Mr. Hinshaw became intoxicated and drove home, the reckless operation of the car and consequent threat to public safety had ended.  Mr. Hinshaw was neither armed nor dangerous.  He posed no threat to the public or officers.  His car was disabled.  Consequently, exigent circumstances did not exist.

My opinion?  Great opinion!  The Court of Appeals saw through the State’s smoke and mirrors.  This was not a case about exigent circumstances.  An emergency never existed!  No, this was a bona-fide; unlawful exercise of “arrest first, ask questions later” on the part of the police.  Clearly unlawful.  Kudos to the Court of Appeals.