The corpus delicti rule is a concept few outside of the legal field are familiar with, but it likely applies to “Craig’s List killer,” Miranda Barbour, who, along with her husband Elytte Barbour, is charged with the unprovoked and premeditated murder of a 42 year old man who responded to a thinly disguised prostitution ad the couple had placed on Craig’s List. The bizarre killing in rural Pennsylvania went from being a regional crime story to international news when Barbour claimed in a prison interview with a reporter that she had been a member of a satanic cult and participated in 20 murders.
Any time there is a major crime story, people ask me for my take. The natural question many people have is whether Ms. Barbour will be charged with any additional homicides. My stock answer is no, followed by an explanation of the corpus delicti rule.
The literal meaning of the Latin term “coprus delicti” is “body of the crime.” In its broadest sense, the corpus delicti rule posits that a person cannot be convicted of a crime unless there is evidence that a crime actually occurred, which seems obvious enough. Most common law jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have a version of the corpus delicti rule, which posits that a person cannot be charged, let alone convicted of a crime, based solely upon a confession. There must be independent evidence to corroborate the confession. This prevents mentally ill people from being prosecuted for non-existent crimes, which are the product of their psychotic delusions.
A classic example of the corpus delicti rule involved the confession of John Mark Karr to the killing of Jonbonet Ramsey, which he made while in custody for child pornography charges. There was absolutely no evidence tying Karr to the state of Colorado, let alone to the murder of a six year old girl. The false confession appears to have been a delusion, held by a mentally ill pedophile so obsessed with the Jonbonet case, that he injected himself into the story. Accordingly, the corpus deliciti rule meant that Karr could not be charged for a murder he obviously did not commit, despite his confession.
The corpus delicti rule is even more applicable to Miranda Barbour than to John Mark Karr. Karr falsely confessed to a murder, which actually happened, while Barbour has confessed to murders, which likely exist only in her mind. Any time you hear the term “satanic cult” thrown around, it is a good indication that you are either dealing with an urban legend, deliberate fabrication, or a delusion. Psychotic people often fixate on satanic cults for some reason, when not obsessing over aliens, the FBI, CIA, NSA, illuminati, the Rothschilds, a worldwide Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy or Free Masons. My belief is that Ms. Barbour is either delusional enough to believe that she really engaged in these murders, or she is knowingly fabricating the murders as a means of seeking attention.
Obviously, authorities must always investigate reports of homicide, even if the report sounds frivolous on its face. I suspect that Ms. Barbour will not be charged with any additional homicides, but it only takes one first degree murder conviction to earn a life sentence without parole or the death penalty.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania. He has extensive experience dealing with mentally ill criminal defendants.