In a murder investigation, one of the most important pieces of evidence is the victim’s body itself. Without it, a prosecutor can’t even prove a supposed victim is dead or prove exactly how they died, making a conviction harder to obtain.
But it’s still possible, even without that important piece of the puzzle. Convictions without a body are typically achieved with strong circumstantial evidence, and confessions. Advances in forensic science, such as DNA testing, also make it easier to lay charges.
Circumstantial evidence requires inferences to prove something that you can’t directly see. It doesn’t directly prove something on its own and usually requires corroborating pieces to back it up.
For example, if a person walks indoors dripping wet, carrying an umbrella and wearing a raincoat, you can reasonably infer that it’s raining. There could be alternate explanations, but that’s the logical one. It’s not as compelling as direct evidence, like eyewitness testimony, but enough circumstantial evidence can make a strong case.
If a prosecutor can use these to eliminate alternate explanations, it can offer a reasonable conclusion of murder.
In 1987, Calgary father Alois Dolejs was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder for deaths of his two young children even though their bodies were missing. However, police had found his abandoned truck containing bloodstains and the clothing of the two missing kids.
While those facts don’t conclusively prove murder, they also don’t allow many reasonable alternatives.
Dolejs himself eventually led police to the remains, months after he’d already been sentenced to life in prison.
The lack of physical remains, however, can lead to lesser charges, or undo a case completely.
In 2014, prosecutors had to abandon second-degree murder charges and accept a manslaughter plea from Ontario man James Parise who’d beaten a woman to death and hidden the body. Parise claimed he had killed her inadvertently and, without a body showing injuries to prove otherwise, prosecutors couldn’t prove murder.
In a 1991 Alberta case, the lack of a body undermined an entire case. A Red Deer man was acquitted of second-degree murder despite some gruesome evidence, including extensive bloodstains in a bathroom, blood, and hair on the tub and a large knife on the floor. But without a body and other strong circumstantial evidence, prosecutors couldn’t secure the conviction.
Murder cases without bodies a rarity in Canadian courts
How do you prove murder without a body?