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Corpus delicti, meaning “body of the crime,” requires proof that a crime took place before an individual can be charged with that crime. With murder, a corpse is considered the most crucial piece of evidence. A body can generally tell investigators when and how a murder happened, but there are cases where the victim is never found, and homicide is prosecuted and often proven. Since 1843, more than 500 known no-body murder trials have been held in the United States.
A&E True Crime explores the intricacies of proving murder without a body and looks at several notable no-body murder convictions.
No Corpse, No Problem?
Although murder charges without a corpse are rare, nationally, about 86 percent of no-body murder cases that go to trial result in convictions, compared to all murder cases with conviction rates of 70 percent.
“Without a body, you need to make sure all your other evidence is overwhelming,” Meghan Doyle, a prosecutor familiar with no-body murder cases, tells A&E True Crime. Most no-body murder cases that go to trial are based on lengthy investigations and an abundance of strong evidence.
“The evidence in a solid no-body murder case tends to cluster around what I call the ‘three legs of the stool,'” says Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor and author of the book No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting and Winning Cases When the Victim is Missing.
“The most important leg of the stool is some type of forensic evidence, which includes DNA, such as blood, hair, fiber and fingerprints, or technological evidence including cell tower records, surveillance camera pictures or some other tech that shows someone was or was not at a certain location.”
While DNA evidence has become more reliable, electronic trails that didn’t exist 20 years ago—such as posting on social media or electronically withdrawing funds—often give a good indication that someone is dead and not just missing. An abrupt change or a sudden stop in electronic behavior is a telling sign. These electronic trails can also reveal important information about those who committed murder and tried to conceal their crimes.
DiBiase, who consults on and tracks no-body murder cases, successfully prosecuted the second no-body murder case in Washington, D.C. in January 2006.
He says the other two legs of the stool are confessions from friends or family (where they reveal they know who the killer is) and the defendant’s confession to police. With strong evidence, prosecutors can establish a motive and the involvement of the accused, demonstrating that a victim was indeed murdered.
Victim: George Watkins (Disappeared 1887/Conviction 1892)
One of the earliest recorded no-body murder convictions is also one of the few cases where the alleged victim may have turned up alive later.
In 1886, George Watkins and his wife, Rebecca, moved from Kansas to Arkansas. Soon after, the wife had an extramarital affair with Andrew Hudspeth (a.k.a. Charles Hudspeth). A year later, Watkins went missing. During an interrogation, Rebecca accused Hudspeth of killing her husband.
Although authorities did not find Watkins’ body, Hudspeth was convicted of first-degree murder and hanged on December 30, 1892. Six months following the execution, Hudspeth’s lawyer claimed that he located the alleged victim on a farm in Kansas.
DiBiase researched the Watkins case and believes the evidence proves otherwise. “There were enough differences between the victim and what the alleged victim who resurfaced was like that I think the evidence is that, in fact, it was not a case of mistaken conviction,” DiBiase tells A&E True Crime.
Hudspeth’s conviction remains disputed.
Victim: Grace Budd (Disappeared May 28, 1928/Conviction March 1935)
American serial killer Albert Fish, also known as the “Moon Maniac” and “Brooklyn Vampire,” became a suspect in five murders. He confessed to three, including the kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd. In November 1934, Albert and Delia Budd received an anonymous letter detailing the graphic killing of their daughter, Grace, whom Fish lured away from their home under false pretense in 1928. He said he brought the young girl to a home in Westchester County, New York, strangled her and cut up her body into pieces, which he claimed to have eaten over a period of nine days.
Without a body and despite a plea of insanity, a jury convicted Fish of Budd’s murder in March 1935 and sentenced him to death. He died in the electric chair on January 16, 1936.
Victim: Evelyn Scott (Disappeared May 16, 1955/Conviction December 21, 1957)
The disappearance of socialite Evelyn Scott in May 1955 is considered a cornerstone case in no-body murder prosecutions.
When Evelyn vanished from her Los Angeles home, her husband, Leonard Ewing Scott, gave conflicting accounts about her possible whereabouts and refused to file a missing persons report. Investigators searched the Scott property in March 1956 and found Evelyn’s dentures, glasses and clothes. Soon after, the district attorney discovered Leonard had been forging Evelyn’s signature on checks and giving her possessions to other women with whom he was romantically linked. Although he did not confess to killing his wife and there was no indication of any violence, Leonard was arrested on April 9, 1957 and charged with murder.
Prosecutors based their case on circumstantial evidence, presenting Leonard as a broke opportunist who cashed in on Evelyn’s substantial wealth.
In December 1957, a jury convicted Leonard of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He confessed to killing his wife with one blow to her head with a rubber mallet after being released from prison in 1978. He said he buried the body in the Nevada desert. Evelyn’s body has never been found.
Victims: Katherine and Sheila Lyon (Disappeared March 25, 1975/Conviction September 2017)
On March 25, 1975, 10-year-old Katherine Lyon and her 12-year-old sister Sheila vanished from a mall in Wheaton, Maryland. The case went cold until 2013, when investigators linked the crime to Lloyd Lee Welch, a convicted and incarcerated child molester.
Items belonging to the girls were recovered at his property in Virginia. Authorities believe Welch burned the girls’ bodies at this location, but they did not find any organic remains.
In 2017, Welch pleaded guilty to their kidnapping and murder, and received a 48-year sentence. The 42 years between the disappearance of the sisters and Welch’s conviction is the longest lull in an American no-body murder case.
Victim: Sarah Stern (Disappeared December 2, 2016/Conviction February 26, 2019)
On February 26, 2019, a jury found 21-year-old Liam McAtasney guilty of first-degree murder for strangling his childhood friend Sarah Stern in December 2016 and throwing her body off a bridge in New Jersey.
Jurors concluded that McAtasney killed Stern, a 19-year-old aspiring artist, while robbing her home. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In addition to McAtasney’s confession, during the trial prosecutors had the advantage of a co-defendant. That witness, 22-year-old Preston Taylor, testified he helped McAtasney dispose of Stern’s body.
Technology also helped secure a conviction. “When we found that the timer of Liam’s phone was activated at the time he said he killed, confirming that he timed her death, I knew we were in very good shape to go to trial,” says Doyle, one of the lead prosecutors on the case.
Doyle does not believe Stern’s body will ever be found. “I pray for her family that it will be, but with the tides, according to oceanographers, it is very unlikely,” she says.