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If there is an individual who has acted in a gruesome manner and murdered another individual, can he be prosecuted even if he confesses to the crime but there is no evidence whatsoever, not even circumstantial? The individual provides vivid details of the crime but prosecution team fails to get any evidence to prove it in court of law.

Since I am not aware of the differences in justice system across nations, my question is very general. How would each court of a nation perceives such cases when there is an ABSOLUTE lack of evidence but there is confession!

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    A confession is evidence.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 15, 2022 at 17:40
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    Believe it or not, there are some people who just confess to crimes regardless of their involvement. Some are mentally unstable, some just want attention, some are perhaps covering for someone else. In any case, it's important that there be more to it than just a confession.
    – jwh20
    Nov 15, 2022 at 18:04
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    A confession might be obtained under duress, even if that is not apparent to the interviewer. Nov 15, 2022 at 18:16
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    The rule is not the same in every jurisdiction.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2022 at 21:30
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    Are we to assume that there is some independent evidence that a crime was committed and the confession is the only evidence that X was the perpetrator or is the confession the only evidence of the crime itself?
    – Dale M
    Nov 15, 2022 at 23:52

5 Answers 5

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This is not a question that is controlled by a federal statute or by U.S. Constitutional criminal procedure (arising mostly under the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments to the Bill of Rights, most provisions of which other than the grand jury requirement, are also applicable to state court proceedings).

No Contest And Alford Pleas In The U.S.

In U.S. district court federal criminal prosecutions (with court permission) and in some U.S. states, there is a special process by which one can, in substance, plead guilty, without admitting the facts of the case against you, sometimes called a "no contest plea." (The Latin phrase used to describe such a plea is a nolo contendere plea). Many states reserve this option for relatively minor offense like traffic misdemeanors.

For example:

In Michigan, "A nolo contendere plea does not admit guilt, it merely communicates to the court that the criminal defendant does not wish to contest the state's accusations and will acquiesce in the imposition of punishment." A nolo contendere plea may be appropriate "where the defendant would not be able to supply a sufficient factual basis for a guilty plea because he or she was intoxicated on the night of the incident, where there is the possibility of future civil litigation resulting from the offense, or where a defendant cannot remember the events which led to his or her being charged with a crime" 1A Gillespie Michigan Criminal Law & Procedure, § 16:15.

Closely related to a "no contest" plea is an Alford plea:

In United States law, an Alford plea, also called a Kennedy plea in West Virginia, an Alford guilty plea, and the Alford doctrine, is a guilty plea in criminal court, whereby a defendant in a criminal case does not admit to the criminal act and asserts innocence, but admits that the evidence presented by the prosecution would be likely to persuade a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . Alford pleas are legally permissible in nearly all U.S. federal and state courts, except in the state courts of Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey, or in the courts of the United States Armed Forces.

In some Alford plea cases, the evidence that makes a conviction likely is a confession.

Of course, when there is a "no contest" or "guilty" plea in a case, no trial is ever held, ands the plea amounts to a confession.

In Cases Where There Is A Not Guilty Or No Contest Plea In The U.S.

The requirements are likewise not uniform across the United States when there is a not guilty plea and the defendant disputes the sufficiency of the confession alone.

Of course, in practice, it doesn't come up very often, because it is rare for prosecutors to prosecute a case in which there is a not guilty plea in the absence of evidence other than a confession that a crime was committed, or that it was committed by the person who allegedly confessed. Usually, a confession is obtained in an investigation of a reported crime, and uncorroborated confessions of inmates in prison with no prospects of release ever or until there are very old are often not taken very seriously by law enforcement.

This is a question of state law in state criminal cases, it is a question of federal law in cases arising under Title 18 of the United States Code (the federal criminal code), it is a question of different federal laws in military justice courts-marital prosecutions which are quasi-criminal in nature, and it is a case of district or territorial law in most areas of the U.S. that are outside a U.S. state that are not prosecuted under Title 18 of the United States Code.

In U.S. military court-martial cases, corroboration of a confession is required to convict.

In U.S. law, in many state and in federal court civilian criminal prosecutions, a validly obtained confession alone is sufficient evidence to convict.

A criminal defendant who does not plead guilty may offer evidence at trial to rebut the validity of a confession at trial. And, if the evidence is sufficient to create a reasonable doubt, an appellate court could overturn a conviction based upon the sufficiently rebutted confession alone. But, a confession alone that is not adequately rebutted at trial with other evidence can support a criminal conviction in most civilian U.S. criminal justice systems.

Also, frequently, a confession made prior to trial is challenged on the ground that it was obtained in violation of a defendant's Miranda rights or was not a voluntary confession that was obtained in violation of more general constitutional due process rights of a defendant (mostly under the 5th Amendment). In those cases, if the challenge is successful, the confession never comes into evidence at all, and thus, can't be used to support a conviction.

In other cases where there is doubt that a confession is to a crime that was actually committed, the matter is often resolved for practical purposes with a forensic psychiatrist's determination affirmed by a judge, that the defendant is not mentally competent to stand trial.

Post-Conviction Relief In The U.S.

In U.S. law, another way that a case can present itself is when a guilty plea is entered, or a conviction is reached following a trial, and someone subsequently comes to the court after the conviction alleging that the conviction should be set aside because the crime in question was not committed.

In practice, if it is clear that the crime in question didn't happen (e.g. a murder conviction of someone who shows up in court alive who pranked the confessing defendant into thinking he was killed), courts usually vacate the conviction without objection from the prosecutor's office.

This is a form of a "collateral attack" on a conviction, and it is sometimes successful. But it is not always successful, even if the evidence that the crime was not committed is overwhelming.

There is dispute in the case law and jurisprudence, in particular, in a federal collateral attack on a conviction, called a habeas corpus petition, if "actual innocence" is available as a defense to a conviction in the absence of any procedural violations of a defendant's rights in the court process. Very few convictions are set aside on that ground, but it is very frequently raised in habeas corpus petitions.


In the United Kingdom, corroboration of a confession where there is not a guilty plea is required to convict (but this is not required in all cases Canada and in some other Commonwealth countries).

In the Commonwealth countries — such as England and Wales, Scotland, Canada, and Australia — the plea of nolo contendere is not permitted. The defendant must enter a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty". If a defendant refuses to enter a plea, the court will record a plea of "not guilty".

(Source)

These shorthand descriptions only roughly state the situation in English law. For a more nuanced, but somewhat dated, analysis of the situation under the law of England and Wales that also traces the history of the relevant law there, see Raymond K. Berg, "Criminal Procedure: France, England, and the United States" 8(2) DePaul Law Review pages 256, 325-330 (1959). As noted there prior to 1660, confessions in or out of court were considered guilty pleas in English law, but major reforms were adopted in the 1800s. The departures of American law from English law in this area, in part, flows from the fact that the reforms of English law post-dated the American Revolution.


Most civil law legal systems are based on the legal codes of France, Germany, or Spain. France's legal system is examined in this post as representative of this type of system, as it was the original civil code legal system.

France does not have a legal system rooted in the English common law, although it did heavily imitate English criminal procedure from 1791 to 1808. The structure and most of the principal doctrines of French criminal procedure are traceable to a legal code called the Code d'Instruction Criminelle adopted there in 1808, and then significantly overhauled and reformed in multiple installments the first of which was adopted in 1958, which is the event that prompted Professor Berg to write Raymond K. Berg, "Criminal Procedure: France, England, and the United States" 8(2) DePaul Law Review pages 256, 283-295 (1959).

As of 1959, in France, the investigatory phase of a criminal investigation was more formalized than under English or American law and more cleanly separates investigative and deliberative parts of the criminal justice process with different personnel assigned to each function (all quotations below are from Berg, some spellings may be incorrect due to incorrect OCR translations):

The first stage is the preliminary investigation wherein the offence is verified, the circumstances under which it occurred are determined and evidence is gathered. In the second stage all the evidence is weighed in order to decide whether or not the accused should be held for trial. The third stage is the trial itself.

The investigation of offences preliminary to trial is carried on by a group known as the police judiciare and by the juge d'instruction who, until the new code, was considered a member of the police judiciaire. The police judiciaire is operated under the direction of the procureur de la Republique and is under the supervision of the procureur general in each Cour d'Appel district. The police judiciaire is, with certain exceptions, in charge of investigating violations of penal law, gathering evidence and finding suspected parties until investigation is begun. When the investigation is begun, it performs tasks assigned to it by investigating officials.

This formal body can interview suspects and witnesses:

If it is necessary to hold a person more than 24 hours, he must be taken before the procureur de la RWpublique who can authorize a further 24 hour period. During this period of detention, the suspect may be interrogated, though the length and details of the interrogation must be noted by the officer of the police judiciaire in a written report. A medical examination of the suspect can be ordered by the procureur de la Republique or by the suspect if he demands it after 24 hours. It is provided that the procureur general can instruct the police judiciaire to gather any information which he thinks will help him to administer justice. The procureur de la Republique also has the power to direct their investigations. The juge d'instruction as well, may delegate his duties to the police judiciaire so that they have all the powers of the juge d'instruction when acting within the limits of that investigation.

They are not allowed however, when acting in this capacity, to interrogate or confront the accused. If it is necessary to detain a suspect, they must bring him before the judge d'instruction within 24 hours. . . .If the offence is a "flagrant" crime, the procureur de la Republique may examine the suspect at once. If the suspect brings counsel he cannot be questioned except in the presence of that counsel. If the offence is a "flagrant" d6lit, the procureur may place the suspect in custody after interrogation. If the juge d'instruction is present, the procureur de la Ripublique and the officers of the police judiciaire hand the case over to him and he proceeds with the investigation. Thus, the police judiciaire can make investigations and interrogate the suspect upon delegation or instructions from the procureur general, the procureur de la R6publique, the juge d'instruction, the prefet, or by virtue of their own office. They also have additional powers in the case of a "flagrant" crime or delit . . .

It is the duty of the juge d'instruction to conduct an investigation known as the preliminary examination (instruction priparatoire). The judge may make such an investigation in three cases only: when directed by the procureur; when the person injured by a crime or delit complains to the judge and constitutes himself a partie civile; when the offense is considered a "flagrant" delit, in which case the judge on his own initiative may conduct an investigation. It must be emphasized that the purpose of this investigation is to determine whether there is enough evidence to hold the suspect for trial. . . The most ancient feature of this investigation is the interrogation (interrogatoire) of the suspect. It is also the most characteristic and probably the most important part of the investigation since it may lead to a confession and because the judge cannot order the committal for trial until he has heard the suspect. The theoretical purpose of the interrogatoire is the ascertainment of truth. It is necessary to consider it (the interrogatoire) as being at the same time a means of defense and a means of investigation; its object is to hear the explanations of the suspect for the purpose of verifying them, to record his denials or his admissions, to search for the truth of the facts in his convincing or contradictory statements. The interrogatoire is conducted secretly in either the cabinet of the judge or in the jail. The number of the interrogatoires is left entirely to the discretion of the judge. All that occurs during the proceedings is noted though the suspect is not under oath. The suspect cannot be questioned by anyone except the judge.

The Code provides for at least two appearances of the suspect before the judge d'instruction. At his first appearance, the judge will verify the identity of the suspect, tell him expressly each charge against him and warn him that he is free not to make a declaration. If the suspect wishes to make a declaration the judge takes it at once. If the judge is of the opinion that the accused should be examined, he must inform the suspect of his right to counsel. If the suspect wishes, he will have one officially chosen for him. The judge may carry out an immediate interrogation if the matter is urgent," but other than this, the first appearance is regarded as a preliminary proceeding in order to inform the suspect of his rights and give him an opportunity to explain away the charge. Thus, as a general rule, the judge may not question the suspect at his first appearance.

At least two days before the interrogation, counsel for the suspect is summoned by a registered letter. The proceedings must also be placed at the disposition of the counsel for the suspect at least 24 hours before each interrogation. The procureur may also be present at the interrogatoire."I During the interrogatoire, the procureur and counsel for the suspect can only ask questions after receiving the permission of the judge. Counsel for the suspect listens to the interrogatoire and makes notes. His role is to keep a check on the judge. If the suspect refuses to answer, the judge is provided with no means of compulsion.

If the suspect persists, mention of this must be made in the proces verbal and if the suspect is brought to trial, the court may draw an unfavourable inference from the fact of such refusal. As soon as the judge d'instruction considers the investigation completed he sends the dossier to the procureur de la Republique, who must return his order within 3 days. If the judge feels the facts do not constitute a crime, delit or contravention, he declares a non-suit by decree. If he thinks the facts constitute a contravention, he decrees that the case be remitted to the Tribunal de Simple Police. If he thinks the facts constitute a delit, he decrees that the case be remitted to the Tribunal Correctionnel. If he thinks the facts constitute a crime, he decrees that the dossier and statement of evidence be sent by the procureur de la Republique to the procureur giniral at the Cour d'Appel so that the Chambre d'Accusation can decide whether the suspect should be held for trial.""

Thus, if the offence charged is a crime, there has probably been an investigation by the police judiciaire under the procureur de la Republique and an independent examination by the judge d'instruction. The suspect has probably been interrogated by the police judiciaire and by the judge d'instruction. The result of these investigations is all contained in one dossier which is now sent up to the Chambre d'Accusation which will decide if the suspect should be tried in the Cour d'Assise.

The bottom line is that in France and most other civil law legal systems, while there is not a category prohibition on conviction of someone for a crime when there is a confession but no corroborating evidence that the crime was committed by the defendant, the task of the investigative stage judicial officials in the preliminary investigation phase of the process is to determine whether a crime was committed and what it was from a pro-active review of all of the evidence available or that can be obtained including a statement from a defendant with a right to counsel.

The investigative judicial officials must be convinced from all of the evidence that is available to them that a crime was committed by the defendant. A confession might be critical in that evaluation, but the official's duties are to not accept that blindly and instead evaluate the defendant's statements in light of the totality of the evidence.

It also bears noting that in the civil law system, following a first trial, an appeal on issues of both fact and law, including the issue of whether a crime was committed, is allowed, unlike in common law systems, where the findings of fact made at trial are final and binding on all appellate courts reviewing the case.

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  • Very detailed! One more, I guess: it’s not only prison confessions. It’s very common for some mentally-ill person to “confess” to a high-profile murder, often much later. Typically, law enforcement would start by figuring out if the penitent just watched the coverage obsessively, or actually knows any facts about the crime scene that were unreported or misreported. If there’s no evidence that a murder even occurred, I’d guess detectives would go looking for a body?
    – Davislor
    Nov 17, 2022 at 2:24
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    @Davislor A public defender smooths out a lot of the false confessions made due to delusions cases. The low IQ almost mentally retarded, mildly violent, easily manipulated person who is bullied or pressured by a more powerful member of the same gang that is using him as a scapegoat, or is manipulated by an unscrupulous law enforcement officer is a more typical case where there is a false confession.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 17, 2022 at 4:22
  • "No contest" is not pleading guilty.
    – nasch
    Nov 17, 2022 at 17:11
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    @nasch For some purposes, a no contest plea is equivalent to pleading guilty (often for more purposes than you would think). For other purposes, it is not.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 17, 2022 at 17:56
  • @ohwilleke It may be equivalent in some ways, but the statement 'there is a special process by which one can plead guilty, without admitting the facts of the case against you, sometimes called a "no contest plea."' is not accurate, because a nolo contendere plea is not, in fact, pleading guilty.
    – nasch
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:16
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It is a general rule that a bare confession does not suffice to allow a prosecution. This is known as the corpus delicti rule. There must also be evidence that a crime occurred. There is jurisdictional variation in what level of evidence is required, and whether that evidence has to be separate from the person's testimony.

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    The OP did not give any jurisdiction tags. So why do you answer based on an US source, without qualifier?
    – o.m.
    Nov 15, 2022 at 18:31
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    Why do you claim that the rule is limited to the US? It is not.
    – user6726
    Nov 15, 2022 at 20:06
  • "There must also be evidence that a crime occurred" such as, presumably, a body... Nov 15, 2022 at 21:42
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    @user6726, your source is for the US. If you meant a global statement, there are some 180 more missing.
    – o.m.
    Nov 16, 2022 at 5:55
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    @ohwilleke: There would also generally be circumstantial evidence of death, such as a failure of the suspected decent to communicate or perform other expected actions.
    – supercat
    Nov 16, 2022 at 16:58
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Yes, an accused can be convicted on the basis of their confession alone, provided it was properly obtained; see also R. v. Hart, 2014 SCC 52 for the treatment of confessions obtained in Mr. Big operations.

R. v. Singh, 2007 SCC 48:

a confession is a very powerful item of evidence against an accused which, in and of itself, can ground a conviction

R. v. Ball, 2019 BCCA 32 (internal citations removed):

An accused can be convicted on the basis of a confession alone, despite the absence of any confirmatory evidence whatsoever. And judges and juries tend to disbelieve ex post facto recantations by those who have previously confessed

Rex v. Chambers, [1947] O.R. 443 (Ont. C.A.):

Counsel for the appellant also raised the objection that there was no corpus delicti, and that the death of the little girl had, therefore, not been proved. In our opinion the appellant's statement to the police on the matter of the death of the child and of his disposition of the body, which, we think, was properly admitted in evidence, fully meets all requirements in that regard.

R. v. D.J.N., 2018 BCSC 2277:

Once a confession is ruled admissible, it is for the trier of fact to determine whether to accept it in whole or part, and to evaluate whether it is sufficiently reliable to sustain a conviction. It seems that an accused may be convicted of a crime on the basis alone of an extrajudicial confession without any corroborative evidence: see Kelsey v. The Queen, [1953] 1 S.C.R. 220 per Fauteux J. at page 227.

R. v. Petersen (1983), 45 N.B.R. (2d) 271, quoting from the Chief Justice of Canada in R. v. Brisson, [1982] 2 S.C.R. 227:

The mere fact that in some cases the cause of death cannot be determined is no more a disabling hurdle for the Crown that the fact that in some cases there is no corpus delecti.

Note that the charging document will need to be specific enough for the accused to meet the prosecution's case. This means for murder, the charging document will need to identify who the accused is being charged with murdering. This implies that, as a pratical matter, if the only evidence really is the confession, the confession will need to be detailed enough to identify the deceased.

It is also highly unlikely that a decision to charge will flow from a confession that does not contain enough information to allow the Crown to even determine whether a crime at all occurred.

As another practical matter, many guilty pleas are supported entirely by an agreed statement of facts that the prosecution and defence jointly submit to the Court.

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  • There was also evidence that the children drowned.
    – user6726
    Nov 15, 2022 at 20:08
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It depends. If there is no evidence and the person confesses, it may not be true, he may be looking for attention or covering for a superior or a friend. In this case it will be right to look for more evidence or maybe use like a {spy} to get the truth out of him. And if he confesses despite the fact that he didn't do it it is at his own risk

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    – Community Bot
    Nov 16, 2022 at 9:14
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No. Consider the case of Henry Lee Lucas who is confirmed to have killed 3 individuals, disputed to have killed an additional 8, and confessed to a total of 600 murders of which 250 murders were closed despite evidence that would make it physically impossible to have committed those specific crimes (During one of the busiest months of his alleged career, Lucas would have had to have driven his at the time 13 year old Ford Station Wagon, 11,000 miles in order to kill all people he claimed to have killed. Anyone who has ever owned a car would know that that means that he had to have the car's oil changed 3-4 times in a single calendar month. Those who really know their cars would question the ability of a 1960s or 70s Ford to be reliable for 11,000 in a calendar month. And those who know about the History of the last half of the 20th century would wonder how someone who was a drifter could afford the gasoline and oil to do all of this in the era of 1970s OPAC Embargo.).

Now, all this aside, the reason why the acceptance of this is wrong is that while Lucas was only convicted of 11 of these murders (He had received the death penalty for one of them), a vast majority of the cases he falsely confessed too were closed on merely his confession alone. Given that it was established that he confessed falsely, that means many of these cases were no longer actively investigated. Which means that even if, upon realizing it was wrongly closed, you immediately opened it and are able to finally solve the case, that is justice delayed to their victims and families. And any lawyer will tell you that Justice Delayed is Justice Deniegned.

Consider for a moment that Lucas was convicted of 11 murders, of which, 8 are now disputed. In the American Justice system, doubt, for any reason about a persons culpability in a crime, means that the person should be treated as innocent. That means that prosecutors brought cases against him on the strength of "We've already convicted him on some murders, he confessed to these, and he's confessed to even more" and won, despite the fact that even they aren't certain about that win. Meaning 8 of his convictions may be wrongful convictions. In a legal system that holds to the Blackstone Ratio (It is better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocents man suffer.) what does that say about how true we hold ourselves.

If a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime, than the case is closed, and society is collectively guilty of letting the real killer get away with his crime. In the case of Lucas, because we successfully convicted him thrice and believed him when he claimed yet more, we convicted became guilty of this crime possibly 8 times over. What's more, because we believed his confession without evidence, we became guilty of letting anywhere up to 600 seperate murders get away with their crimes.

And if that doesn't give you pause for concern, consider this: To the family and friends of murder victims, nothing will ever make them hole again. Something was stolen from them that can never be replace. Nothing will heal them in this life... but for many... simply knowing that the person who hurt you will never again be permitted to hurt anyone else in some small way helps ease that pain. Many take solace in the fact that this person will never be able to hurt anyone like they have hurt you ever again.

Imagine then, if you will, that the same people who are glad that they finally know what happened to their murdered loved ones, one day, years... decades even... has a cop pull up to their house like they did so many years ago on the worst night of their life... and like they did so many years ago to say "After all this time, we got the bastard." Only this time, that same cop has to tell this person, "We were wrong."

That's a hard position to place yourself in... but the cop isn't done... he says "We were wrong, because we believed a murderer when he lied for his own benefit and ignored the facts that screamed 'he's a damn liar.' And because of that, the real person who killed your loved one is still out there. And may never be caught... because we were tricked into never looking for him."

Lucas may have only killed 3 people and claimed to have killed 600. But he denied justice from untold thousands... and that is a crime he couldn't have possibly done alone."

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    This seems to show that the answer to the OP's question is "yes", not "no" - Lucas was sentenced to death for a crime he falsely confessed to despite there being no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Nov 15, 2022 at 22:07
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    Those are good policy reasons against allowing the practice, but it doesn't seem to support that conclusion that convictions on the basis of confessions alone are not legally permitted and whether or not law enforcement chooses to close cases are not legal questions.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:25
  • If we're going to imagine things, what about the people who get told "After all this time, we got the bastard." and finally get to rest peacefully, instead of knowing for the rest of their life that the person who did it got away, possibly living a full life free of consequences for his action?
    – prosfilaes
    Nov 16, 2022 at 22:21

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