How do you write legal fiction when no one finds the body?

This is the way the movies play legal fiction. Scene from Anatomy of a Murder.
This is the way the movies play legal fiction. Scene from Anatomy of a Murder.

I WATCHED ONE of those 48 hour mystery shows about a murder trial.  The kicker was that no one had ever found the body.  The supposed victim, a young woman, just disappeared.  The accused, her boyfriend, was doing pretty well at trial until he took the witness stand, against his lawyer’s advice.

The defendant claimed he had spoken to the victim after the date of the alleged killing and said that she just wanted to start a new life and had simply dropped off the radar for a while.

They interviewed the foreman of the jury after the trial’s conclusion.  He said when the accused had talked for ten minutes, no one on the jury had any doubt that he killed the girl.

So, as we think this Friday about writing tips for legal fiction, let’s consider this sort of case. It is full of possible twists and turns.

Stephen Woodfin
Stephen Woodfin

There was a time in American jurisprudence when a prosecutor could not bring a murder charge against someone without the body of the victim.  No corpse, no murder charge. As the real case I mentioned above shows that is not the law now.

I suppose the most obvious reason that the law used to require a corpse is the possibility that the person, in fact, has just hit the road to new environs, washed his hands of his former life and decided to build a new life sans the entanglements of his personal history.

So one neat scene would be to have the victim show up right after the jury convicts the defendant of a crime he obviously didn’t commit.

Another technique would be show the reader how the accused committed the crime and disposed of the body where no one would ever find it.  In that trial, the author could have the jury hang up because of nagging doubts about whether any crime ever occurred. Or the prosecutor could charge “the usual suspects” and have them falsely convicted while the true perpetrator sits in the courtroom and watches the proceedings like a donkey eating briers.

We often hear people talk about “circumstantial evidence” as if this is a second-class type of proof.  Against it, people set “eye witness” testimony, evidence used against a person caught in the act of breaking the law.

The truth is that most cases are circumstantial and that eye witness testimony is the least reliable evidence of all.  A person’s eyes can deceive them, especially when the person is asked to relive an experience that took place in a second in the midst of a confused barrage of events.

So if the evidence shows that the accused was the beneficiary of the victim’s million dollar life insurance policy, that he was seen arguing with her an hour before she disappeared, that she never went more than three hours without calling her mother and that the defendant had the victim’s muddy shoes in his car trunk when they arrested him the day of the disappearance, a jury can certainly find beyond a reasonable doubt that the boyfriend did it.

But maybe the girlfriend planned the whole thing, framed her boyfriend and took off to Tahiti.

You can write it anyway you want. Have fun.

Stephen Woodfin is author of the legal thriller, Last One Chosen. As an attorney, he knows how to write a courtroom scene.

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