What will happen if (Bob) with 6 friends murder a person (Jake) in a room with 20 people, but after the police arrive they can't confirm which people in the room committed the crime? What will happen if they can't confirm who killed Jake in court?

To clarify: 7 people were involved in killing Jake out of the 20 people in the room.

  • 5
    When you say "Can't confirm" where are we in this "Law and Order" episode? Are the police investigating or is the prosecutor prosecuting at trial? Keep in mind that 20 suspects are rather easy to find something to dig up.
    – hszmv
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 21:08
  • 5
    It's unclear what you are asking? Do you want to know what police would do to find Jake? Do you want to know what the prosecutors will do to convict? Do you want to get away with murder?
    – hszmv
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:47
  • 17
    Have you just read Murder on the Orient Express by any chance...?
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 15:19
  • 3
    Also depends on the country the crime is committed
    – Trink
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 15:32
  • 5
    You use good old fashioned interview methods before you get near the courtroom. Arrest them all on suspicion of murder, keep them separate from each other till they start to get twitchy, then interview each one in isolation from the rest and say "your friends have already told us what happened, but things will go easier for everybody if you give us a statement as well." The innocent ones will assume the guilty ones have stitched them up, and give the true story.
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 1:07

6 Answers 6


Everyone goes free. Each individual in the room is considered innocent until proven guilty. If the prosecution cannot prove that Bob was guilty of the murder then Bob is considered innocent. The same goes for each of the other 19.

However if all 20 people were part of some other crime which led to the death of Jake then they might be found guilty under accomplice liability.

  • 6
    @Zheer: Yes. Or more accurately, not proven guilty. Under US law, a person is innocent until they are proven guilty, so "not proven guilty" = (legally) innocent.
    – sharur
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 22:37
  • 26
    @Zheer They do not need to be proven innocent, they need to be proven guilty. All modern western law has the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. A person is innocent until guilt has been proven, not the other way around ("Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat").
    – Polygnome
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 9:08
  • 9
    All 20 in a single room? Probably seeing the homicide happen? Sounds like some lesser charge might stick, negligence at least? Or, if it was a Law and Order episode indeed, they'd all get charged with conspiracy to commit murder until one squels or they all go down.
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 12:56
  • 5
    @ilkkachu: I mean, there's always the murder mystery trope where the lights go out and when they come back, someone has been killed. Everyone was there, but no one actually witnessed the crime. Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 14:02
  • 7
    There's a classic example that applies: If 7 people rob a bank, and one of them kills a security guard in the process, all 7 are considered to be guilty of the murder even if only one of them pulled the trigger. Even if one of them just stayed in the getaway car the whole time, they are still involved in the crime. Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 19:42

The police don't need to determine who specifically killed Jake, only who participated in the crime.

If Bob and his six friends work together to kill Jake, then all seven of them are guilty of murder, even it was only Bob who actually killed Jake. For example, if two of Bob's friends hold Jake so he can't move, and the other four of Bob's friends distract the other people in the room so they can't see what's happening, and then Bob stabs Jake with a knife killing him, then under US law they're all considered guilty of murder.

Now in a trial, the prosecutor would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that each of these seven people is guilty of murder. However, in order to do the prosecutor doesn't need to prove what exactly each of the seven people actually did, only that each person participated in the crime. In my example above, it doesn't make a difference who stabbed Jake or who held him while he was being stabbed, or who tried to prevent anyone from witnessing Jake being killed, anyone who did any of these things is guilty of the same crime. The prosecutor just needs to prove that each defendant did any one of these things, not that each defendant did one particular thing.

So while the police don't need to know who actually killed Jake, but they do need to who participated in the crime. If say, Bob and his six friends are all known gang members, while the rest of people in the room have no known criminal associations it may be easy for the police to identify them as suspects and then build a case against them. It's possible that they'll only be able to find evidence that shows that some of the seven participated the crime, but not others. It's even possible for the actual killer to be acquitted while the rest are convicted.

Potentially a lot of outcomes are possible, but the police don't need to identify the killer specifically.

  • 4
    If Bob and his six friends work together to kill Jake, then all seven of them are guilty of murder. As a real-life example, this reminds me of a case where ten people basically "worked together" to kill five people. They didn't all get convicted for the same thing, or sentences the same, however, due to different levels of involvement or complicity with prosecutors.
    – Andy
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 20:15
  • "In my example above, it doesn't make a difference who stabbed Jake or who held him while he was being stabbed", do you mean that the person who stabbed the victim and the person who held him all get the same amount of time in prison?
    – Zheer
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 22:58
  • 1
    @Zheer Probably, but there's a lot of factors that go into sentencing. One of the participants might for example plead guilty and get a reduced sentence because of that.
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 0:06
  • @Ross Ridge, in the slenderman stabbing case, i think they got different sentence times without a plea deal in the beginning.
    – Zheer
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 8:35
  • In the scenario the police know that some of the people in the room were involved in the murder (the OP says 7 out of the 20) but the police don't know (or at least can't prove) which ones they are. Your answer applies if the police know which 7 but don't know which of them landed the lethal blow. Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 9:51

Crimes go unsolved all the time

There are all sorts of points of failure between a crime being committed and the perpetrator being punished.

  1. The crime must be brought to the attention of law enforcement. Crimes that are never reported are never solved.
  2. Law enforcement must make a judgment call that a crime has or might have been committed. Many reports of "suspicious activity" (that may or may not be criminal) die right here.
  3. Even if they decide that there might have been a crime, law enforcement must decide whether to just file the information or actually initiate an investigation. This is where most break & enter and other property crimes die.
  4. Law enforcement has to decide how actively to pursue any particular investigation. This is a judgment based on many factors including the seriousness of the crime, the likelihood of identifying the perpetrator, the likelihood of obtaining enough evidence for a conviction and the available resources and other demands on those resources.
  5. The investigation has to actually identify a suspect and produce enough evidence that a conviction is more than a remote possibility.
  6. The prosecutor that law enforcement takes this to has to assess the strength of the case and decide whether it's worth prosecuting. Again, a multi-faceted decision.
  7. They have to get through the arraignment hurdle.
  8. They have to get a conviction.
  9. The conviction has to survive any appeals.

Now, it's not necessary that everything is known in detail - circumstantial evidence is enough if it convinces a jury of guilt.

For your scenario:

  • It's murder so there will almost certainly be an investigation.
  • There are lots of suspects - the investigation will have to gather enough evidence to realistically bring a case against some or all of them. If it can't; the murder remains unsolved.

There are plenty of people walking away free that police know committed this or that crime.

It doesn't matter what they know - it only matters what they can prove.

  • 2
    Classic example: everyone knows OJ did it.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 12:31
  • 3
    This is correct. It is however, worth noting that there is no statute of limitations on murder and the prosecutors can offer immunity even for murder. If at some time in the future, there is a disagreement among the 6, then 1 of the 6 can bargain for immunity and snitch on the rest.
    – emory
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 12:47

The Orderud Killings

While this happened in Norway, I will relate it nonetheless, as the question does not specify a jurisdiction.

To make a very long story short, the wife of a prominent diplomat, Anne Orderud Paust (herself occupying an important position in the Ministry of Defence), and her parents were killed on their farm in Sørumsand. Four people were indicted for the crime, and although the prosecution could not prove who carried out the killings, they successfully proved that all the suspects participated, and they were all convicted.

Source (in Norwegian, sorry): https://snl.no/Orderud-saken

Parts of it are translated on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orderud_case#Investigation

Prosecutors believed that all four were involved in the murder, but neither the investigation nor the subsequent trials gave answers to who actually carried out the killings.

I vouch for the correctness of the translation at the time of writing this (07.02.2020 European date format).

  • Note that the verdict has been disputed ever since, and a fair share of evidence has surfaced that indicates the verdict may have been misguided - thus, I am not speaking as to the correctness of the verdict, I'm only saying that it happened.
    – Bjonnfesk
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 1:42

I will answer for Russia.

A case cannot be closed with acquittal in Russia. Theoretically yes, but in practice, no.

In this particular case the things will go straightforward. They will write down the witness accounts of those 20 people, make cross-questionnaire, make reenactions etc. This would be enough for the court.

But what happens in cases where they simply have no evidence at all? In that case they do the following:

  • Torture people so that they admit guilt.
  • Harrass witnesses.
  • Put people into mental facilities where the doctors either would decide that the person needs mental treatment or write down "his words" supporting the guilt even if he did not say anything.
  • Forge evidence about other crimes of the person, most commonly drug possession. The police usually has excessive drugs from confiscations which they do not document, and they commonly put drugs into pockets or apartments of innocents.

If we still suppose they somehow were unable to do all the above, they will wait till the end of the expire time for the crime and then suggest the accused to admit guilt in exchange for closing the case due to time expiration (the person still would face legal discrimination for the entire their life in that case).

  • Aren't these methods illegal by themselves like torture and harassing, i mean the person is under investigation by many cops and if one of them does something like this wouldn't the others try and prevent this from happening?
    – Zheer
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:04
  • 1
    @Zheer Yes, technically it is illegal, but it is how Russian police commonly works. This is the system approved by the higher-ups. If you as an officer dislike participate, you will be instantly fired.
    – Anixx
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:18

It may be instructional to consider Southwest Airlines flight 1763.

On August 11, 2000, Jonathan Burton stormed the cockpit door of the Boeing 737 operating the flight. The 19-year-old was subdued by six to eight other passengers with such force that he died of asphyxiation.

No criminal charges were filed.

  • 19
    Not the same situation. Whoever killed Mr Burton was obviously acting in self-defense so no crime was committed.
    – Dale M
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 23:09
  • Why is it instructional, and when in the US did self-defense become murder?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:57

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