What Is Corpus Delecti? The Innocent Man Trials Relied On This Rare Law

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix's The Innocent Man.
Temperance Brennan once said on FOX's Bones that she could commit the perfect murder by destroying the body — without it, there could be no murder case. But she was very wrong, due to the existence of corpus delecti. The Latin law term refers to the "body of [the] crime," meaning if it can be proven that a murder was committed, no actual body needs to be produced. As seen in Netflix's new true crime show, The Innocent Man, corpus delecti allowed for the trial and convictions of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot for Denice Haraway's death, even though her remains hadn't been discovered at the time.
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It's also what tripped up a British serial killer John George Haigh in the 1940s. He was known as the Acid Bath Murderer and confessed to nine deaths, according to The Forensic Examiner. But he thought he couldn't be tried because he'd dissolved the bodies in acid. He believed corpus delecti to mean that there needed to be a literal corpse for a crime to be determined. But even without the bodies, investigators had gathered enough other evidence to try him, and he was convicted on six counts of murder, per The Guardian.
In The Innocent Man, after Haraway's disappearance, both Ward and Fontenot confessed on camera to having participated in the abduction and murder of Haraway. (They later recanted these statements and now claim they are innocent.)
But court documents from their trials state that a confession alone is not enough to prove the existence of a death. In order to demonstrate to the jury that Haraway was dead, the prosecution had to provide evidence independent of Ward and Fontenot's taped confessions.
Among this evidence, per court documents, were eyewitnesses accounts that placed Ward at Haraway's place of work, and also placed both Fontenot and Ward at a nearby convenience store prior to Haraway's disappearance. They were also both seen in the same type of car that witnesses later saw at Haraway's work. A jailhouse informant also alleged to have overheard Fontenot confessing after the fact.
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In addition to those testimonies, the state offered proof of Haraway's death in the fact that she wasn't seen after her disappearance. As shown in the first episode of the Netflix series, Haraway failed to show up at school or church or work, which was unusual for her. Court documents stated that Hawaway was known to be on time to places, always called in if she was sick, and wouldn't have intentionally missed her upcoming weekend camping trip with her husband.
Under Oklahoma law, corpus delecti just requires that a death be proven without only using the defendant's confession. Because murder cases quite often involve the discovery of bodies, the Netflix series stated that it is rare for corpus delecti to be invoked, although it has been done.
In this instance, the jury believed the proof was there, and both Ward and Fontenot were found guilty of Haraway's kidnapping and murder. They're still serving out life sentences in Oklahoma prisons according to inmate records.
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