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There is an ongoing case in France about Mrs Delphine Jubilar (fr) who disappeared one night in December 2020.

Her partner is accused of having murdered her, but no body was ever found. He is currently held in prison pending trial.

Can one be convicted of a murder when there is no body, and no other evidence that the victim is even dead? While this seems quite certain now as there has been no sign of life from her since then, there's still no real evidence of her being dead or of him killing or even assaulting her. No witness, no recordings. Yes, there's a motive (possibly several), there's opportunity, there's a bit of circumstantial evidence, but until now I don't think there has been any proof of the murder, much less that he committed it.

Can one be considered dead just because they disappeared without a trace?

I'm mostly interested by the situation in France, but I would be curious of the situation in other countries as well.

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    The answers say "yes" but of course there needs to be evidence of the murder - it just doesn't have to be the body.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Jan 18 at 21:39
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    "there has been no sign of life from her since then, there's still no real evidence of her being dead " - "no sign of life from her" is (circumstantial) evidence of her being dead, that is the point.
    – sleske
    Commented Jan 19 at 10:50
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    @DonQuiKong Exactly. Imagine unambiguous video footage of the murder, of the harbor and of the yacht used to dispose of the body in the ocean. Not being able to convict in that case seems absurd. (But the OP asekd about "other evidence" -- obviosuyl you need some evidence or nobody can claim a murder happened.) Commented Jan 19 at 13:55
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    It is quite common for murderers to enter plea deals for a reduced sentence if they show the police where the body is (so that it can be returned to the family for example). If a missing body was 100% foolproof avoid jail card why would they ever do that when the police was unable to find the body in months/years?
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Jan 20 at 8:52

9 Answers 9

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Yes

Wikipedia has a list of convictions lacking bodies from multiple jurisdictions including four from France.

Bodies provide all sorts of useful evidence, including pretty convincing proof that the victim is dead which is something that’s needed for a conviction and evidence about how they died, but evidence of that can be introduced in other ways. The absence of a body makes it harder to prove guilt, but it doesn’t make it impossible.

Can you be convicted if there is no evidence the victim is dead?

No evidence? No, the victim being dead is one of the things the state has to prove.

Circumstantial evidence? Absolutely.

The jury is allowed to reach the conclusion on the evidence provided that the victim is dead, and that the accused murdered them. For example, the prosecution might show that the accused had the motive to kill and that they were with the victim the last time anyone else saw them alive and they went off together into the deep, dark woods and only the accused came back; if the jury accepts that evidence, they can conclude the accused murdered the victim with or without a body.

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Yes, it's relatively rare but it does happen. Most recent case in France was that of Nicolás Zepeda Contreras being convicted of the murder of Narumi Kurosaki

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Other people seem to be answering the question in the title, rather than the question in the body. The answer to the question "Can one be convicted of a murder when there is no body, and no other evidence that the victim is even dead?" is "Of course not". One cannot have evidence of murder without having evidence of death, so a complete absence of evidence for a death means a complete absence of evidence for murder. If the jury is convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that the defendant killed someone, but not convinced beyond all reasonable that that person is dead, they have fallen for the conjunction fallacy.

Also, you ask about a situation where there is "no" evidence, but then say "there's a bit of circumstantial evidence". This seems to be expressing the common misconception that circumstantial evidence isn't "real" evidence. Circumstantial evidence is simply evidence that is correlated with guilt, rather than directly proving it. It's perfectly valid evidence, although it needs to be combined with further evidence. The very fact that someone's spouse is missing is itself circumstantial evidence that that person killed them, albeit very weak evidence. If that's combined with further evidence, even if the other evidence is circumstantial, that could be enough to get a conviction.

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    FWIW, many kidnapping statutes impose the same penalties as murder when a kidnapper kidnaps a person who is not released alive, essentially creating an unrebuttable presumption that someone who is kidnapped and not released alive has been murdered by the kidnapper, even if the death of that person is not established by any affirmative evidence.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 18 at 23:32
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    @ohwilleke with citations, that would make a good answer
    – MJD
    Commented Jan 19 at 0:42
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    The OP also asked about evidence that the person was dead. "Disappearing without trace" is basically that evidence - all countries have some procedure for how absence of evidence of life becomes evidence of absence of life.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 19 at 13:17
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    I think many jurisdictions rule that if someone is missing for longer than some threshold (often around 7 years) they're presumed dead. However, France isn't listed in the wikipedia page.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 19 at 15:04
  • @Barmar lost at sea is traditionally one year
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 20 at 11:39
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Can one be convicted of murder without a body?

No problem at all. No body, no weapon, no crime scene. The David Benbow case.

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    You step upon a grave marker. It reads, Here lies "beyond reasonable doubt". "It couldn't be a coincidence", the Crown clamored! Whelp, guess it's time to see if I weigh as much as a duck. Commented Jan 18 at 14:31
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Yes, a person can be convicted of murder despite a lack of evidence of death.

A well known case in the state of Michigan had the Duvall brothers Raymond and Donald convicted on two counts of first-degree murder of two men. No bodies have ever been recovered. No forensic evidence of any kind, no weapons, no part of a missing vehicle and no recordings. The prosecution relied on one eyewitness of dubious credibility and about two decades of worth of hearsay.

They were convicted in 2003, and their convictions have survived all appeals.

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David Gilroy was convicted in 2012 of murdering Suzanne Pilley despite the prosecution presenting no physical evidence of her fate.

Searches of her workplace and his car failed to uncover any DNA evidence in either location, and searches for her body over a large area¹ that could have been reached by car on a particular journey to Argyll were fruitless too.

The prosecution case rested on circumstantial evidence:

  • Suzanne Pilley ceased all known contact, she had not used her credit cards and she had made no provision for her pets.
  • Although no remains could be identified, detection dogs identified scents of human blood or other remains in the offices and Gilroy's car.
  • CCTV footage shows the victim arriving but not leaving.
  • Gilroy suddenly stopping very frequent attempts to contact the victim, suggesting he knew his messages wouldn't be read.
  • The car journey to Lochgilphead was unexplained.

The jury convicted by majority verdict, and her remains are still unaccounted for in 2024.


¹ Although my search & rescue team was involved in this search, I wasn't one of the members taking part.

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Other answers have described how a murder conviction can arise without the victim's body. Indeed, murder convictions can arise without the supposed victim having died. See Convicted for murder and "victim" found alive for some examples.

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Yes, in Canada.

On 6th May 2013 Dellen Millard and Mark Smich arrived at the home of Tim Bosma, to test drive the truck that Bosma was selling. Bosma was never seen again, and neither Millard nor Smich was identified by Bosma's wife. Following a substantial investigation human remains were found "believed to be Bosma" but not positively identified as such. Despite this Millard and Smich were convicted of Bosma's murder.

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Here is a case from Cuenca, Spain, in 1918. Two people were convicted of murder, with no body found. Eight years later the "victim" turned up in perfect health. So not only do you not need a body; sometimes you don't even need anyone to actually be dead.

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