Friday, August 27, 2010

The Old Corpus Delicti Rule

Thanks goes to our AFPD summarizers for their summaries. There have been a number of cases, and I'm not keeping up, but I'll try to get more up here!


Direct Appeal


Jury convicted defendant of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Defendant moved for a post-verdict judgment of acquittal, arguing that the only evidence presented against him at trial (his confession) did not support the jury’s verdict. Trial court invoked the "corroboration rule" and acquitted him. Government appealed. Finding that sufficient independent evidence established the trustworthiness of the defendant's statements, the Court of Appeals reversed.

The case involved what in Michigan is called the corpus delicti rule, and the Circuit Court found sufficient evidence that the crime of stealing a gun and possessing it had occurred. The rule is a bit different than the Michigan rule, but relatively similar.

The Court found that "[t]oday’s corroboration rule differs from its predecessor in form but not in function. Wary that '[the] weakness of the accused under the strain of suspicion' may cause the accused to give a false, even if voluntary, confession," the Court continues, "the Supreme Court in 1954 embraced a variation on the rule to prevent 'errors in convictions based upon untrue confessions alone.'" The Court goes on, "[u]nlike the corpus delicti rule, the government need not introduce evidence independent of the accused’s confession to establish that the crime occurred."

The government generally may satisfy the rule by introducing substantial independent evidence that tends to establish the trustworthiness of the statement. This approach, the Court found, has the virtue of ensuring that these trustworthiness considerations extend to all confessions, including confessions in cases in which no one doubts a crime occurred, only who committed it.

The corroboration requirement differs from another requirement—that the confession be voluntary. Voluntariness goes to admissibility. Corroboration goes to sufficiency. A court may admit a confession into evidence as voluntary, but then reject it as uncorroborated (on the theory that even voluntary inculpatory confessions may be unreliable). Basically, jurors should not vote to convict based upon such a statement alone.

The Circuit Court concluded that there was sufficient independent evidence of the crime to provide corroboration of the defendant’s confession.


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