People v. Williams, Docket No. 72519

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation373 N.W.2d 567,422 Mich. 381
Docket NumberDocket No. 72519
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. John L. WILLIAMS, Jr., Defendant-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
Decision Date04 September 1985

Page 567

373 N.W.2d 567
422 Mich. 381
PEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Appellee,
John L. WILLIAMS, Jr., Defendant-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
Docket No. 72519.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
Argued Jan. 10, 1985.
Decided Sept. 4, 1985.

Page 568

[422 Mich. 384] George B. Mullison, Bay County Pros. Atty. by Thomas J. Rasdale, Asst. Pros. Atty., Bay City, for plaintiff-appellant/cross-appellee.

State Appellate Defender Office by Mardi Crawford, Asst. Defender, Detroit, for defendant-appellee/cross-appellant.

RYAN, Justice.

The defendant's conviction for first-degree premeditated murder 1 was vacated by the Court of Appeals because the prosecution failed to produce evidence, independent of the defendant's confession, of the elements of premeditation and deliberation. The court, 129 Mich.App. 362, 341 N.W.2d 143, found that result to be required by the corpus delicti rule.

We disagree and reverse.


Defendant was charged with the first-degree murder of his next door neighbor,

Page 569

79-year-old Frances Brattler. The information alleged that defendant had murdered the victim in a wilful, deliberate, and premeditated manner, or during the perpetration or attempted perpetration of a larceny, or both, contrary to M.C.L. Sec. 750.316; M.S.A. Sec. 28.548. Defendant was bound over on a charge of open murder, convicted by a jury of first-degree [422 Mich. 385] premeditated murder, and sentenced to the mandatory term of life imprisonment.

Trial testimony was that the victim was found dead in the dining room of her Bay City, Michigan, home on April 15, 1978. It was at first believed that she died from natural causes. However, an autopsy revealed that the cause of death was a single stab wound, inflicted by moderate force, which had penetrated the victim's breastbone and severed the aorta. Death was almost instantaneous. Several bruises were found which were said to have been inflicted shortly before or after death.

The victim's daughter and son-in-law testified that the victim always locked her doors, kept some money in her purse, and was a fastidious housekeeper. When the body was discovered, the front door was unlocked, the victim's wallet was empty, a sugar canister was open in the kitchen, and a cup of sugar with a napkin placed over it was found near the front door. The victim's car was also missing.

Several of defendant's friends testified that they saw him driving the victim's car from April 14 through April 16. They claimed that the defendant told them that he had borrowed it from his aunt or grandmother. Defendant was also seen in the vicinity of his house during the evening of April 13, the night of the murder.

After defendant was arrested on April 16, he told police where the car and the knife he used in the killing could be found. Both were recovered. Defendant's fingerprints were found inside and outside the car, but no identifiable fingerprints were obtained from the knife. Blood matching that of the victim and fibers similar to those in her robe were discovered on the knife. The victim's daughter testified that the knife was similar to one that her mother kept in a kitchen drawer, but the [422 Mich. 386] handle appeared to be different. Defendant's fingerprints were found on a door frame between the kitchen and the dining room.

Shortly after the arrest, defendant gave a taped statement to the police in which he stated, in part, as follows:

"Well, I was--I had just came [sic ] back from my parents [sic ] house and, no I didn't I was going from the other room and I was going to our house and then I saw my little brother so I walked with him a little ways and then I went through her yard and she knocked on the window and started yelling at and she called me a little bastard so after, I just ignored it and then she came out the front door and started yelling at me and then after that I just got mad and waited and waited and then at night time I went in and got her." Plaintiff-Appellant's Brief on Appeal, p. 9.

Later, he modified his story somewhat and claimed he went to the victim's house to apologize to her but, when he entered the house, the victim began yelling at him. Defendant became angry and attempted to strike the victim. She ran into the dining room. Defendant went into the kitchen, found a knife, and stabbed the victim. He became frightened, took the victim's car, and disposed of the knife he used in the killing by dropping it into a sewer.

At trial, when the prosecution offered into evidence the defendant's statement, defense counsel objected, citing the corpus delicti rule and arguing that the defendant's statement was not admissible until all of the elements of first-degree murder, including the elements of premeditation and deliberation, were proved independent of the statement. The objection was overruled and the trial court admitted the statement because the court said the corpus delicti of second-degree murder had been established.

[422 Mich. 387] The Court of Appeals, recognizing the existence of a split of authority on the

Page 570

issue in that Court, 2 held that the corpus delicti rule requires that the prosecution must establish premeditation and deliberation by evidence other than a defendant's extrajudicial statement. The Court reached that conclusion because it found that the rule announced in "[ People v. Allen, 390 Mich. 383, 212 N.W.2d 21 (1973) ] is applicable to the present case." After concluding that the record in this case did not contain independent evidence of premeditation or a deliberation, the Court of Appeals reduced the defendant's conviction to second-degree murder and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. Defendant's remaining allegations of error were rejected.

We think the Court of Appeals erred in its [422 Mich. 388] application of the corpus delicti rule to the facts of this case. 3


The history of the development of the common-law corpus delicti rule demonstrates that in homicide cases, of which this is one, the purpose for the rule is satisfied if it is shown, independent of the defendant's statement, that the named victim is dead as a result of some criminal agency. See Perkins, Criminal Law, (2d ed.), p. 104; LaFave & Scott, Criminal Law, pp. 16-17; 45 ALR2d 1316; Anno: 99 L.Ed. 110; People v. Mondich, 234 Mich. 590, 208 N.W. 675 (1926).

The historic office of the corpus delicti rule in homicide cases is to guard against, indeed to preclude, conviction for a criminal homicide when none was committed. Many of the early cases in which the rule, as applied to homicide cases, is discussed were prosecutions for killings occurring aboard ships upon the high seas. Frequently in such cases no body was found, for obvious reasons. As a result, the argument was advanced, and with occasional success, that no conviction should be [422 Mich. 389] obtained absent some evidence, independent

Page 571

of the defendant's confession that there was an unlawful killing, and the evidence must include proof of the existence of a corpse. However, early English courts resisted the adoption of such a rule, stating, in one case:

"By the 'corpus delicti,' subject of the crime, is not meant that the subject of the crime must be so extent, as to fall under the senses; but that the loss sustained is felt and known. As for example: in the crime of murder, though the body cannot be reached, yet the particular loss is known...." Captain Green's Trial, 14 How.St.Tr. 1199, 1246 (Scot.Adm., 1705).

Professor Perkins points out that Justice Storey of the United States Supreme Court felt so strongly on the subject that he said of the notion that it was necessary that a body be found as a condition of successful prosecution of a murder case:

"[A] more complete encouragement and protection for the worst offenses of this sort could not be invented, than a rule of this strictness. It would amount to a universal condonation of all murders committed on the high seas." United States v. Gilbert, No. 15,204, 25 F.Cas. 1287, 1290 (1834).

As a consequence of such early forceful expressions of opinion, the rule was developed that, to satisfy the corpus delicti rule, there need not be evidence that the body of the deceased was located, it being sufficient "that the loss sustained is felt and known." Captain Green's Trial, supra. The King v. Hindmarsh, 2 Leach 569; 168 Eng.Rep. 387 (1792); United States v. Williams, No. 16707, 28 Fed.Cas. 636 (1858); State v. Lamb, 28 Mo. 218 (1859); Campbell v. People, 159 Ill. 9, 42 N.E. 123 (1895). More modern decisions likewise rejected the "no body-no corpus [422 Mich. 390] delicti" argument: Commonwealth v. Lettrich, 346 Pa. 497, 31 A.2d 155 (1943); Warmke v. Commonwealth, 297 Ky. 649, 180 S.W.2d 872 (1944); People v. Cullen, 37 Cal.2d 614, 234 P.2d 1 (1951); Regina v. Onufrejczyk, 1 All ER 247 (1955); People v. Scott, 176 Cal.App.2d 458, 1 Cal.Rptr. 600 (1959), app. dis. 364 U.S. 471, 81 S.Ct. 245, 5 L.Ed.2d 222 (1960); State v. Lung, 70 Wash.2d 365, 423 P.2d 72 (1967).

Despite clarification of the early confusion about the meaning of the Latin idiom corpus delicti as used in homicide cases, there remains, among many laymen at least, some lingering misunderstanding that the corpus delicti in such cases refers to the body of the deceased. It does not, of course, and refers instead to the body (corpus) of the wrong (delicti), "the loss sustained."

In criminal homicide prosecutions, the delicti, or essence of the wrong, is the wrongful taking of a human life, a criminal killing. The Legislature has distinguished between criminal homicides of differing types and varying severity of penalty by defining and denominating them as different crimes. Whether the killer took the deceased's life in sudden passion under provocation (manslaughter, M.C.L. Sec. 750.321; M.S.A. Sec. 28.553) or in circumstances showing that the killer at the time of the homicide entertained an intent to kill, or an intent to...

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