Legend: 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.”
Origins: 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
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
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
Did this scenario ever play out in a courtroom? Michael Parrish, in his 2001 book, For the People, a history of the
- 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 Presidentis 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.
Sightings: 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
Last updated: 13 August 2005