Dumped in a lake. Dissolved in acid. Fed to pigs. In movies and TV shows, murderers often find creative ways to dispose of one key piece of evidence: the victim’s body. In reality, disposing of the body may not prevent a murder conviction in California.
Several people in California have been convicted of murder in cases where the body was never found. One of the most famous cases involved Donald “Shorty” Shea, who disappeared during the summer of 1969. Charles Manson, one of the most infamous serial killers, and two other men, Steve Grogan and Bruce McGregor Davis, were eventually convicted of Shea’s murder despite the fact that his body had not been found at the time of his conviction.
How Can It Be a Crime Without a Body?
To convict you of murder in California, the prosecution must prove the following elements:
- Your actions caused the death of another person or fetus
- Your mental state at the time of the act constituted malice aforethought, and
- There are no valid excuses or justifications for your actions
Physical evidence obtained from a corpse can go a long way in helping the prosecution prove these elements. For example, if prosecutors had access to Shea’s body, they would have evidence to show that he had been struck in the back of the head with a pipe wrench and stabbed several times.
Though it is much more difficult for prosecutors to prove the necessary elements of the crime without the physical evidence that shows how a person died, there are ways to prove these elements without access to the victim’s corpse. In the Shea case, witnesses heard Manson bragging about chopping Shea into nine pieces. These statements provided evidence that Manson had the intent to cause the death of Shea before going through with the act (malice aforethought).
However, experienced criminal defense attorneys may be able to poke holes in the prosecutions case if no physical evidence is obtained from the body. For instance, a skilled murder attorney may argue that the victim is still alive and therefor it is factually impossible for the defendant to be convicted of that person’s death.
Prosecuting the Shea Murder Without a Body
In the Shea murder case, much of the evidence came from witnesses who had spoken to Manson. Notorious for his racism, Manson repeatedly denounced Shea for having been married to a black woman. Shea complained about Manson to the owner of the ranch where Manson lived and Shea worked. Manson blamed Shea for tipping off the police about stolen cars at the ranch. The police raided the ranch and arrested several members of the Manson “family.” After Shea disappeared, a witness testified that Manson bragged about dismembering Shea’s body.
When Shea’s ex-wife came to the ranch looking for him, she was told he had gone to San Francisco. However, she knew that Shea had been up for a role in a movie and would not have abandoned his dream to be an actor so easily.
Based on these facts, the prosecution was able to convince a jury that while the body had not been found, the evidence pointed to Manson having ordered Shea’s death, and Grogan and Davis carrying it out. Nearly 10 years later, Grogan admitted to the murder and led authorities to Shea’s body in exchange for granting him parole.
Contact Wallin & Klarich Today if You are Accused of Murder
If you are accused of murder, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. At Wallin & Klarich, our skilled criminal defense lawyers have been successfully defending clients facing murder and other serious felony charges for more than 35 years. We’ve helped thousands of clients in their time of legal need, and we can help you now.
With offices in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, San Diego, West Covina, Torrance and Victorville, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich murder attorney available to help you no matter where you work or live.
Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will get through this together.