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When a Confession is Not Enough

A man walks into a police department and announces, tearfully, that he killed a young boy 33 years ago. Case solved, right?

Not so fast. News that New York Police have solved the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979 now gives way to the cold hard legal fact that the confession alone, absent corroboration, is not enough to convict someone of a crime.

The rule – corpus delicti – applies across the criminal law. In North Carolina, the case is frequently applied in DWI cases pursuant to State v. Trexler, which is often deployed by defense attorneys in cases where a DWI is charged following an accident.

In the Anglo-American legal system, the concept has its outgrowth in several principles. Many jurisdictions hold as a legal rule that a defendant’s out-of-court confession, alone, is insufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.[1] A corollary to this rule is that an accused cannot be convicted solely upon the testimony of an accomplice. Some jurisdictions also hold that without first showing independent corroboration that a crime happened, the prosecution may not introduce evidence of the defendant’s statement.

In Trexler, the North Carolina Supreme Court cited State v. Parker:

We adopt a rule in non-capital cases that when the State relies upon the defendant’s confession to obtain a conviction, it is no longer necessary that there be independent proof tending to establish the corpus delicti of the crime charged if the accused’s confession is supported by substantial independent evidence tending to establish its trustworthiness, including facts that tend to show the defendant had the opportunity to commit the crime.

We wish to emphasize, however, that when independent proof of loss or injury is lacking, there must be strong corroboration of essential facts and circumstances embraced in the defendant’s confession. Corroboration of insignificant facts or those unrelated to the commission of the crime will not suffice. We emphasize this point because although we have relaxed our corroboration rule somewhat, we remain advertent to the reason for its existence, that is, to protect against convictions for crimes that have not in fact occurred.

Given the age of the Etan Patz case and the fact that so little evidence exists that the child was, in fact, killed, it may be difficult for the New York City District Attorney’s office to, in fact, prove the current suspect is guilty of Second Degree Murder.



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