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A man washes up on the shore in the middle of the night. He staggers into the nearest town, where he bumps into a woman walking home on her own - and, after a brief, confused altercation - he strangles her to death using the strap of her handbag.

The police are called, and the man is eventually caught and taken into custody. He does not appear to be capable of speaking any known language, and nothing on his person can be used to identify him.


I am very much a layman with respect to legal matters, but my understanding is that the opening stages of any trial include rigorous procedures to establish the identities of the parties involved. Would it be possible to put the man from the scenario above on trial for murder? Or would the trial just collapse when no identity could be affixed to the perpetrator?

(P. S. I live in the UK myself, but I'd be delighted to hear how this situation would be handled in any legal system.)

  • While this is probably outside the scope because it's too broad, maybe you can narrow it down by clarifying if it's possible to find a lawyer who can communicate with the individual. If it demonstrably isn't possible, then the defendant would be incompetent to stand trial. – grovkin Jan 7 at 23:39
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    They would probably give him a name, like John Doe. Failure to discover a persons identity is not a basis for being free of the ability to commit a person for a crime. After you are in prison you are given a number anyway. – Ron Beyer Jan 8 at 1:52
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Why do you think the man is unidentifiable? He's the guy standing in the dock.

While a person's name is a handy shorthand for them; it's not their identity. Many people have several names and nicknames - this guy has none: he's still this guy.

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    "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I need say no more in defence of my client than this: the prosecution has incontrovertible video evidence, DNA evidence and a dozen witnesses, but they do not have the defendant's name and therefore this case should never have come to trial." – Lag Jan 8 at 11:43
  • @Lag Ha ha! I agree that there would be an overwhelming moral imperative - not to mention public outcry - to convict the man in the scenario above. However, I imagine that courts of law are sticklers for following procedures, and wouldn't a spanner be thrown into the works of those procedures by the lack of a name? How, for example, would the jury deliver their verdict? "We the jury find... um, that guy over there... guilty of murder..." I suppose what I'm really asking is: Could a court assign a defendant a name if necessary? – Tom Hosker Jan 8 at 13:28
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    @TomHosker It is customary in common law litigation to caption males and persons of indeterminate gender whose name is not known as "John Doe" and females whose name is not known as "Jane Doe". The Roe in Roe v. Wade is also such a name, in that case to conceal the name of the true litigant. Initials are more common in that circumstance, however. Another famous example of parties whose names were not known was is in the case United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad which has factual similarities to the scenario in the question. – ohwilleke Jan 8 at 19:08
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    @TomHosker courts are far more pragmatic than you think – Dale M Jan 8 at 19:34

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