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Tennessee Corpus Delicti Rule Modified

'Corpus delicti'," a Latin term meaning "body of the crime,' is a criminal law concept wherein there must be some proof that a crime occurred before a person can be convicted of it. In Tennessee, and other U.S. jurisdictions, it is the concept justifying the principle that a criminal defendant's extrajudicial confession alone is not sufficient to convict of a crime. There must be evidentiary corroboration that a crime occurred. The Tennessee Supreme Court recently re-examined the Tennessee version of the corpus delicti rule and issued an opinion (State v. Bishop, W2010-01207-SC-R11-CD (Tenn. 3-6-2014) adopting a 'modified trustworthiness' standard in examining the evidentiary sufficiency of extrajudicial confessions.

In the Bishop case, the defendant was convicted at trial of felony murder by attempted aggravated robbery. The defendant's version of events, given both in a confession to police and in his trial testimony, was that he accidentally shot the victim during a botched attempt to rob the victim. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, both on their determination that the extrajudicial confession to police was illegally obtained and that the only evidence that the defendant was attempting a robbery was the extrajudicial confession and the defendant's own trial testimony.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated the conviction. They determined that the initial arrest was supported by probable cause and so the extrajudicial confession was admissible. They further noted that the corpus delicti rule applies to extrajudicial statements ... not statements made under oath in court. So the defendant's testimony at trial was alone sufficient to prove he had been attempting to rob the victim when the victim was was killed.

The Court, in considering this case, decided to review Tennessee's corpus delicti rule and consider whether to abandon it entirely, keep it, or modify it. They elected to modify the rule in what they called the 'modified trustworthiness' standard. They noted this was not a lesser standard than the traditional rule, but only a different approach. Under the new standard, a court considering the sufficiency of an extrajudicial confession must determine whether the crime at issue was one resulting in tangible harm. Then, if so, the state must provide independent evidence showing the statement trustworthy, plus independent evidence of an injury. If not a crime involving a tangible injury, the state must provide independent evidence the statement is trustworthy and the evidence must link the defendant to the crime.

Applying the new standard to Mr. Bishop's case, the Court concluded there was sufficient corroboration of his extrajudicial confession even if he had elected not to testify at trial.

For more information on corpus delicti or extrajudicial confessions, contact Hindman & Associates.

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