Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Corpus Delicti Definition:

Latin: the body of the offense.

Related Terms: Arson, Actus Reus, Actus Reus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea

The act which constitutes the crime.1

In R. v National Post, the Supreme Court of Canada equated corpus delicti with actus reus:

"The document and the envelope are not merely pieces of evidence tending to show that a crime has been committed. They are the very actus reus [or corpus delicti] of the alleged crime."

Shumaker and Longsdorf presented corpus delicti as follows:

"The body of the of the offense.

"The offense itself, as distinguished from the participation of any person therein.

"Thus, the corpus delicti of homicide is that a person has died by violence, not merely that he has died, though the weight of authority is that the mere fact that a building has been burned is the corpus delicti of arson."

John Bouvier's lengthy interpretation in the 1914 version of his treatise:

"Corpus delicti: "The body of the offence - the essence of the crime.

"It is a general rule not to convict unless the corpus delicti can be established, that is,
until the fact that the crime has been actually perpetrated has been first proved. Hence, on a charge of homicide, the accused should not be convicted unless the death be first distinctly proved, either by direct evidence of the fact or by inspection of the body.

"Instances have occurred of a person being convicted of having killed another, who, after the supposed criminal has been put to death for the supposed offence, has made his appearance alive. The wisdom of the rule is apparent; but it has been questioned whether, in extreme cases, it may not be competent to prove the basis of the corpus delicti by presumptive evidence.

"In cases of felonious homicide, the corpus delicti consists of two fundamental aind necessary facts: first, the death; and secondly, the existence of criminal agency as its cause. A like analysis would apply in the case of any other crime. When the body of a murdered man was mutilated and burned beyond recognition, testimony that a piece of charred cloth found in the ashes with the body were like the trousers that a certain man wore, and that a slate pencil found there was identical with one he carried about him, was competent evidence to establish the identity of the body.

"The presumption arising from the possession of the fruits of crime recently after its commission, which in all cases is one of fact rather than of law, is occasionally so strong as fo render unnecessary any direct proof of the corpus delicti....

"The corpus delicti in arson consists in proof of the burning and of criminal agency in causing it.

"A confession alone ought not to be considered sufficient proof (without) the corpus delicti."

Note also these words adopted by Justice Bastarache in R v Charemski (Supreme Court of Canada):

"The courts have frequently recognized the fact that the corpus delicti, that is, the act which constitutes the crime, in this case the setting of the fire, may be proved by circumstantial evidence.

"It is clearly established law that it is not necessary that the corpus delicti should be proved by direct and positive evidence, and it would be most unreasonable to require such evidence. Crimes, and especially those of the worst kinds, are naturally committed at chosen times, and in darkness and secrecy; and human tribunals must act upon such indications as the circumstances of the case present.....

"(E)vidence of other matters – motive, opportunity, financial difficulty and possibility of gain – (could) be considered as evidence going to prove the crime, and it was not necessary for the Crown to adduce direct evidence of the corpus delicti"

REFERENCES:

  • NOTE 1: R v Pritchard, 2007 BCCA 82 at ¶71.
  • Shumaker, Walter and Longsdorf, George Foster, The Cyclopedic Dictionary of Law Comprising the Terms and Phrases of American Jurisprudence, Including Ancient and Modern Common Law, International Law, and Numerous Select Titles From the Civil Law, the French and the Spanish Law, Etc., Etc. With an Exhaustive Collection of Legal Maxims (St. Paul, Minnesota: Keefe- Davidson Law Book Company, 1901), page 210.
  • R v Charemski, [1998] 1 SCR 679
  • R v National Post, 2012 SCC 16

 

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