The Arizona Republic is reporting that the police belive that five year old Jhessye Schockley was likely killed by her mother. They then suppose that the young girl’s body was thrown in the trash. This case raises some interesting problems for the authorities and it also explains why they charged the mother with crimes but then dismissed the charges to examine the case further.

You don’t have to be a criminal defense attorney to know about the concept of “corpus delicti.” This is the principle that a crime must have been proven to have happened before a person can be convicted of a criminal offense. In lay terms, you typically need to have to have a body or at least some compelling physical evidence to prove murder.

So in a missing person case, where there is no evidence of foul play whatsoever, a prosecuting attorney would generally be barred from charging someone with murder. This is because corpus delicti requires two things in murder cases. 1.) An individual has died; and 2.) By a criminal act.

In the Shockley case, neither of these prongs is known. If the youngster was abducted and kidnapped, she could still be alive. Further, if she did in fact die, it isn’t known that a criminal act was the cause of her death.

Criminal defense attorneys will often say in closing arguments that proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires that the prosecutor exclude all realistic possibilities that the defendant is innocent. This means that there can’t be a believable story or explanation that vindicates Jerice Hunter. In the instant case, I wouldn’t want to be the prosecutor. Here’s why.

If little Jhessye was abused by her mother in the past doesn’t mean that her mother is guilty of murder. The fact that Jhessye has not been found also opens the question that she may still be alive. After all, thousands of children are abducted and are missing. If her mother is the most likely suspect, this doesn’t prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

So what is happening in this case now? Jerice Hunter has been arrested only to have her charges dismissed. What are the police doing? The authorities are waiting because they have the luxury of time on their side.

There is no realistic statute of limitations in this case. The State can wait and see if any additional evidence is found. More importantly, they can watch what their prime suspect does. It is likely that her phone is tapped and her statements are being recorded. Perhaps she told a friend something and the friend will then come forward to the police. Perhaps Ms. Hunter will reveal something later.

Because of corpus delicti, the police will want to dot their i’s and cross their t’s before they move on the case. Let’s hope that the police are wrong and that Jhessye is found alive and well.

Here’s an excerpt from the Republic:
“Police suspect that a 5-year-old Glendale girl who went missing a few months ago is dead, her body callously disposed of and probably lying buried beneath tons of trash in a giant landfill. If Jhessye Shockley’s body is not found, bringing a killer to justice will be a daunting task. But experts say it is not impossible. Across the nation, prosecutors have won murder convictions in dozens of cases in which there was no victim’s body. In the past year, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office successfully prosecuted two such cases.”

Criminal defense attorney Nick Alcock is the owner of Alcock & Associates law firm, located in Phoenix, Arizona.

by Nick Alcock

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