Quick-witted prosecutor turns the lack of a body in a murder case to his advantage.
Defense counsel was giving his summation in a case involving a client who had been charged with murdering his wife, even though her body had never been found. He tried to the best of his ability to sow
the minds of the jurors with the seeds of reasonable doubt, dramatically proclaiming that nobody could demonstrate that the alleged victim was even dead. Every eye in the courtroom gazed in the direction indicated by his outstretched arm as he pointed to the doors at the back of the courtroom and thundered, "Why, she might walk through those doors any second now!"
It was a masterful technique. When the jurors realized that they themselves had been expecting the supposedly dead woman to burst through the courtroom doors just then, how could they possibly maintain they were sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had killed her?
The prosecutor was undaunted. Slowly rising from his seat behind the table, he too gestured towards the courtroom doors. But his voice was calm as he looked the jurors in the eye and began to speak: "Every head in this courtroom turned toward that door just now — every head except one, that of the defendant. He didn't bother to look because he knows she's not going to walk through that door. He killed her."
Although the U.S. legal system acknowledged as far back as 1834 (in United States v. Gilbert
) that an accused murderer should not be able to avoid prosecution simply because his putative victim's body had not been found, successful prosecutions of "bodyless"
murder cases were rare until well into the 20th century.
Most states originally required the presence of a body for the prosecution of murder case, and even after that restriction was removed, prosecutors in such cases still faced the daunting task of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a death had occurred and that the death was the result of an unlawful act — all without a corpse to provide any physical evidence of those claims.
One of the more famous cases that helped to establish the validity of "bodyless" prosecutions was the 1959 California murder trial of Leonard Ewing Scott (176 Cal. App.2d 458),
who was accused of killing his older and wealthier socialite wife, Evelyn Throsby Scott, after she disappeared without a trace. The prosecution contended Scott had murdered his wife for her money (about $1 million)
even though they could not produce a body; a common rumor at the time held that her corpse had never been found because Scott had buried it in the supports of the San Diego
Freeway, which was then under construction near the couple's home.
The prosecution of Scott on murder charges was successful, although the jury declined to impose the death penalty and sentenced Scott to life in prison instead. This is the case often cited as the one in which the anecdote quoted above occurred, with J. Miller
Leavy starring as the quick-witted prosecutor who turned the defense attorney's clever trick against him, thereby securing a conviction.
Did this scenario ever play out in a courtroom? Michael Parrish, in his 2001 book, For the People
, a history of the Los Angeles
County District Attorney's office, states that although the legend was commonly attached to prosecutor J. Miller
Leavy, it was nothing more than a fanciful story. And even if a judge were to allow such theatrics in his courtroom, this tale has a number of implausibilities:
- If, as described, "every head in the courtroom turned toward the door" when the defense attorney proclaimed that the putative victim "might walk through those doors any second," those heads would have included the prosecutor's, so how could the latter know for sure whether or not the defendant had also looked?
- Even if the prosecutor kept his gaze fixed on the defendant the whole time, everyone else in the room still looked away towards the back of the courtroom, so the prosecutor would have no way of demonstrating the truth of his claim that the defendant had not also done so.
- In such a situation, when someone urgently directs us turn and look elsewhere, our natural inclination is to do so, even if the direction is logically inconsistent. When a person excitedly proclaims, "Look, here comes Abraham Lincoln!" and gestures behind us, our instinctive reaction is to turn and look, even though we may intellectually know that the 16th President is long dead and therefore could not possibly be in the vicinity. Emotion and curiosity, not logic, rule the day in such a circumstance; unless the gesticulator is a known prankster, it takes quite a bit of self-control for us not to look. So, unless the defendant knew his attorney was about to pull this sort of stunt, it would have been quite remarkable indeed if he had kept his gaze fixed towards the front of the courtroom.
We might consider this legend a clever and humorous reinforcement of a concept we want to believe, the old adage that "crime doesn't pay." Nobody wants to see a murderer go free because his lawyer does too good a job of manipulating the jury's emotions, so the quick-thinking prosecutor in this tale set things to right by turning the tables on the defense.
Oh . . . and if we've left you wondering whether Leonard Scott might have been unfairly convicted, author Diane Wagner maintained in her 1986 book on his case, Corpus Delicti,
that after he was released from prison, Scott admitted to her that he had indeed killed his wife.
The "defendant doesn't look" giveaway was used as a movie plot point in the 1987 courtroom spoof, From the Hip
, and on an episode of TV's Homicide: Life on the Street
("The Twenty Percent Solution," original air date 30 October
13 August 2005
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- Halasa, Marni. "'Body-Less' Cases Not Unprecedented."
- New York Law Journal. 25 September 2000.
- Harvey, Steve. "Only in L.A."
- Los Angeles Times. 7 March 2001 (p. B9).
- Parrish, Michael. For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office 1850-2000.
- Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2001. ISBN 1-883-31815-7.
- Wagner, Diane. Corpus Delicti.
- New York : St. Martin's/Marek, 1986. ISBN 0-312-17016-5.