I've been watching "Des", ITV's dramatisation of the arrest and trial of serial killer Dennis Nielsen. The police seem desperate to identify the names of the victims, despite having the bodies of the victims and ample evidence of Nielsen's guilt. Is there a particular reason for this (besides a desire to follow protocol properly and identify the victims' families, etc?)

I'm not a lawyer, but the show makes it seem like the police need to identify the victims in order to charge him with murder - like him being caught with multiple unidentified dead bodies in his house and admitting to guilt isn't enough.

(For those wondering, Nielsen claimed not to know the identities of his victims as they were predominantly homeless young men and, prior to murdering them, he had only had (in most cases) brief, consensual homosexual encounters with them and spoken to them on first-name terms, which was actually quite plausible). And it seems logical to me to believe that crimes require identified victims for charges to be brought.

Can someone be charged with murder of an unidentified victim?

  • 8
    Consider that if the answer was no, murderers could be assured of acquital simply by making their victims unidentifiable.
    – J...
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 14:08
  • Are you asking about English law (as per tag), or all jurisdictions? (Also, what if N people leave country X in a ship/plane, and < N arrive in country Y?)
    – smci
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 22:31
  • 1
    Historical aside: Back in the time of Edward 1, the victim had to be unidentified for it to constitute murder. An identified victim (or perpetrator) was a homicide. Identifying the victim was necessary in order to avoid the consequences of murder: a heavy fine imposed upon the hundred where it took place. Britton, book 1, chapters 6 and 7.
    – JdeBP
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 23:34
  • There is an episode of the docuseries The First 48 where some people are charged with the murder of an unidentified person. (Granted, that is in the US.) They were charged with murdering “John Doe.”
    – SegNerd
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 23:39
  • @JdeBP ok but what is the reason or rationale for this incentive mechanism? Was it just to encourage the identification of victims in order to ensure that as many victims families could be notified as possible etc? Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 14:24

3 Answers 3


Yes, a person can be charged with the murder of person or persons unknown

The reason that police are really keen to identify the victim include (in no particular order):

  1. It will probably clear up a missing persons case;
  2. So they can inform the next-of-kin;
  3. Being able to place a named person who loved and was loved before a jury rather than nameless corpse increases the chance of conviction - all else being equal.
  • 3
    There are quite some (old) cases that were tried with the dead body of an unknown person.They are called John Doe or Jane Roe on the documents often.
    – Trish
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 9:53
  • 6
    @Trish That is a US usage that has fallen out of use elsewhere - in other common law jurisdictions they are called by the unimaginative “person(s) unknown”.
    – Dale M
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 10:49
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    I would guess that also it may make it easier to build a case if a motivation can be established.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 17:58
  • Even in the US I'm not sure how often it's used in a legal setting anymore. The cops might describe an unidentified body as a John Doe, but once it actually gets into legal documents or court proceedings, they'd more likely use some more formal terminology for them. May vary by region/jurisdiction of course. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 15:48
  • There's also the fact that the prosecution likes to set out a narrative explaining how the person came to be murdered, and it's a lot easier to investigate this and present the evidence to a jury if you know who the victim is. Even if someone is killed in front of witnesses, prosecution will typically provide background information. This overlaps with the fact that killing a named person is more likely to influence a jury. Also, for sentencing or if there is some kind of a plea e.g. to avoid the death penalty, then knowledge of the victim and their relationship will often be relevant.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 16:26

Let's try a thought experiment:

Assume (contrary to law) to get sentenced, not only you need to prove that someone did the killing, but also who the victim was.

This could lead to the following scenario:

  • Alice kills Bob.
  • To make sure nobody recognizes Bob, she chops off his hands and head, then throws both into a snowplow.
  • To evade DNA evidence, she takes the resulting mess and the rest of the skeleton and burns them to crisp.
  • Nothing to identify the remains as Bob's is left.
  • The resulting head- and handless skeleton without DNA she puts up as Halloween decoration.

As it was made impossible to identify Bob with the remains, Alice can't be sentenced under this hypothetical law. In fact, its very setup does not only benefit such gruesome behavior to disguise the identity of the victims, it encourages it.

How the law works

Now, the thought experiment shows how gruesome the results would be if the law demanded identification. But the murder statutes are - in Common Law, Code Civil and Germanic tradition - written in ways that make the identity and even what the killed person did, in general, is made irrelevant, they focus on the mens rea of the one conducting the killingaside from self-defense. Some examples:

  • The UK does not define what is murder in a statute, but has laws which killing of someone is not murder by pointing to circumstances and the state of mind and what it is instead then.
  • NY-State defines variations of murder based on the intent of the killing and the circumstances (Felony Murder Rule)
  • Germany has its homicide crimes in StGB §211 to 213, which require the act of killing and an investigation into the intent and circumstanced to decide what section applies.
  • France defines its (baseline) murder as "willful killing", so they require the act and the mens rea
  • 4
    In the UK, murder is defined as the "unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought". It's not a statutory definition, just a common law one.
    – Matthew
    Commented Oct 19, 2020 at 14:09
  • 2
    For the record, your example would not be sufficient to remove DNA evidence. (By far the easiest way to do that is to not have killed someone in the first place.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 16:58
  • 2
    I'm not sure your "thought experiment" adds anything here. We all understand that such a law wouldn't make sense; that was the OP's whole motivation for the question. (And anyway, I'm not sure that your thought experiment is entirely sound. The law as-is already encourages Alice to destroy any evidence that she murdered Bob, and yet, the police still regularly manage to catch murderers.)
    – ruakh
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 21:38

In the U.S., John Wayne Gacy, one of the more infamous serial killers (famous for having a hobby of being a clown, though this was not used with his murder MO) was convicted on 33 counts of murder, all of whom were teenage or young adult males who Gacy sexually abused prior to their deaths. At time of his trial, 11 of the victims he was eventually convicted of killing were unidentified. Of those 11, 2 were identified while the trial was ongoing, an additional 4 were identified following Gacy's conviction, the most recent of which was identified in October of 2021. At least one of the 4 post-conviction bodies that remained unidentified until the renewed effort that begun in 2011 was long suspected by the victim's parents, however, they were unable to provide dental records as their family dentist had recently retired and all his records were destroyed.

While a reason was not asked, the renewed effort to identify Gacy's unidentified victims has led to the closing of four unrelated cold cases dating back as far as 1972 and ruled out several cases that Gacy was suspected of but never convicted of.

At time of writing, 5 of Gacy's victims remain unidentified, however all unidentified victims had viable DNA samples collected, as of October 2011.

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