Drew Peterson: Do You Need a Body in a Murder Case?

Posted on Dec 5, 2007 in National Issues

drew_peterson.jpgLast night, a third search warrant was served on Drew Peterson, allowing the police to search Peterson’s vehicles.  According to Joel Brodsky, Peterson’s attorney, the warrant authorizes the search and seizure of  things which “may have been utilized in commission of the offense of first-degree murder or the concealment of a homicidal death,” along with trace elements of several materials, including blue plastic.

Peterson’s lawyer is also setting up the defense.  He’s telling the media that this third warrant overlaps with the first search warrant but expands its language to allow for seizure as well as search.  Brodsky’s already arguing that anything taken will be an illegal seizure, because the authorities can’t attempt to correct their errors like this.

And why are the police going to this level of detail, going back for the third time?  Because they haven’t found a body.

Do they need a body to charge Drew Peterson with Stacy’s murder?  After all, Lacy Peterson’s body was discovered and identified through DNA testing (along with Connor) before Scott Peterson was charged. 

The short answer is “no.”  Murder convictions have been obtained without a body; however, they’ve been supported with an extremely high amount of circumstantial evidence.  Many times, that circumstantial evidence includes some type of confession (e.g., the defendant has admitted to the killing to a girlfriend or a cellmate) or a large amount of physical evidence suggesting serious bodily harm to a missing victim (e.g., blood spatter supported by DNA testing, etc.).

It’s a strong defense to argue that without a body, there is reasonable doubt that the person is dead.  People do leave their lives without explanation – voluntarily or not.  Think of the Runaway Bride.  Think of Elizabeth Smart.

It’s a very difficult case — to successfully prosecute a murder case without a body.  Going back with a third search warrant suggests that the authorities are considering doing just that — if they can gather enough circumstantial evidence to feel comfortable going forward at this point.

And, of course, they do have the body of Drew Peterson’s third wife, Kathleen Savio.  Evidence that she met with foul play could be strong circumstantial evidence of Stacy Peterson’s murder.

However, Savio’s body demonstrates the flip side of the “do you need a body in a murder case” question.  Savio’s body may be physical evidence of a homicide; however, there does not appear to be any direct evidence connecting Drew Peterson to that crime.  An intruder could have hurt her, a boyfriend or relative could have left her in that bathtub.

Savio’s situation tells us that even with a body, you still may not have enough evidence for a murder conviction.  Kathleen’s only justice (assuming Drew Peterson is guilty of both crimes) may be providing key evidence to convict Peterson in Stacy’s murder trial.

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