The corpus delicti rule states, if I understand it correctly, that there must be evidence that a crime occured (other than a confession) before anyone can be convicted of that crime. I have found claims online that the corpus delicti rule is applied at least in parts of the United States. (1, 2)

However, the United States has a plea system that allows for a person to be convicted without a trial ever starting if the defendant pleads guilty (At least, that's how I understand it, I'm not from a common law country). This seems to be a contradiction to the corpus delicti rule because no evidence of the crime was presented to the court before the conviction.

So my question is: Does corpus delicti really apply in the U.S. or is it possible to circumvent this test completely by means of a guilty plea?

2 Answers 2


The U.S. Code of Military Justice and some other U.S. jurisdictions require some factually support for a guilty plea, but most U.S. jurisdictions do not.

It is not uncommon in state criminal practice to have a defendant plead guilty to a crime that definitely didn't happen, because the parties are willing to compromise on the punishment that goes with that charge.

Federal criminal practice is not something that I do, but the fact that all of the high profile pleas of the current President's associates in federal court involved such evidentiary recitations causes me to suspect that it is required in federal civilian criminal practice, at least under the standards of some federal circuits, as well.

It is not a constitutional requirement under the federal constitution in the U.S.

  • 2
    As an example of "pleading guilty to a crime that didn't happen", there was a case here where four people were arrested for trespassing. Three of them plead guilty to criminal trespassing (sentence: maximum 90 days), but if the fourth had plead guilty, it would have triggered various "career criminal" provisions and a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence. So instead he plead guilty to criminal copyright infringement, which had the same sentence range as criminal trespassing, but didn't trigger "career criminal" provisions.
    – Mark
    Oct 21, 2020 at 2:58

This is the process: DA needs to collect evidence and convince a grand jury to charge someone with a criminal charge. After that a judge organizes the defendant to appear in front of him and to say if he/she pleas guilty or not or if it doesn't want to plea (effective as plea "not guilty"). If during that process or in any time after and before a final decision a defendant decides to change its plea to guilty, judge needs to approve that, and after approving it issues a sentence. It depends also whether that plea is combined with some settlement with a DA. In any case, judge can reject that plea even it is very uncommon. If accepted, DA does not need to provide any evidence and jury is discharged.

Judge's role in that plea guilty situation is to see if that is really a defendant's decision and with full understanding of consequences. Also, it reminds a defendant that if plead guilty, there is no appeal.

Because of all noted, there is no value for any defendant to talk with prosecution and police before talking with its attorney. Any word and and often is regretted and even if defendant wants to plea guilty, a good attorney can get better sentence (4 instead of 8 years, better jail conditions, parole, etc). If you just plea guilty without any settlement, you are rejecting that opportunity.

  • The above answer is not accurate for all US jurisdictions. For example, in a number of states a Grand Jury indictment is not required and is often not used. In some a guilty plea is accompanied by statements of purported fact sufficient to support the conviction, and the judge will ask the accused if those statements are true. Nov 20, 2020 at 15:45

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