It is hard to win a murder case without having recovered a body or without determining a cause of death, experts say. But it is not impossible.
In fact, it is being done more and more as prosecutors become emboldened by uncontested DNA evidence and other ever-improving technology.
The Laci Peterson case may become Stanislaus County's first in either category -- a missing body or no cause of death -- depending on laboratory test results. District Attorney James Brazelton said Wednesday that he will not shy away as long as his people have enough evidence.
Therein lies the problem.
"Let's face it: You have to establish somehow that the victim died of some form of criminal (act)," said Stephen Lungen, district attorney of Sullivan County in New York. Last week, he coaxed a guilty verdict from a jury in the trial of a man whose wife disappeared three years before her skeleton was found in March 2002.
The victim had been stuffed in a trash can tied with a military parachute cord. No evidence linked her husband to the murder, but Lungen pointed out that the husband had been a Green Beret paratrooper.
A half-century ago, no-cause-of-death and no-body prosecutions were unheard of. That changed when a Los Angeles jury in 1957 did not buy paint salesman L. Ewing Scott's "no body, no crime" defense. He served 21 years of a life sentence for having murdered his wife and confessed a year before his death in 1987.
Since then, such cases have slowly gained more acceptance. Nowadays, they are among the highest-profile cases in the nation. Los Angeles County alone has prosecuted dozens.
Experts say lack of a body can be overcome if prosecutors demonstrate that a person would not disappear without good reason. Early in the Peterson case, Modesto police declared that they had no reason to suspect her to have gone off on her own, because she was close to her family in Modesto, and she was expecting a baby.
Next, prosecutors must accumulate enough circumstantial evidence to link a suspect to the disappearance.
"It's a lot harder to do" without a body, said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Stanislaus. "If you can show it through circumstantial evidence, it's difficult, but not impossible."
Such evidence could include motives like jealousy, revenge or financial gain, plus ability to commit the act.
Expert witnesses crucial
Sometimes critical to these cases is testimony of expert witnesses such as forensic pathologists. Dr. Michael Baden, for example, helped Lungen piece together evidence that led to last week's conviction in New York, a case taped by cable's Court TV for possible presentation in June.
Baden also helped O.J. Simpson's defense team as well as Chandra Levy's family after the Modesto woman's remains were found in Washington, D.C., almost a year after she disappeared there. He helped determine she was strangled, he said; no one has been arrested.
"The less you have, the more complicated it gets," agreed Enrico Togneri, a forensic consultant in Nevada.
Years ago in Contra Costa County, Togneri helped detect hatchet marks on bone fragments in a fireplace. The fragments turned out to be from a woman burned by her daughter. The revelation helped authorities obtain a confession and conviction.
About 92 percent of all deaths occur under supervision in hospitals, Baden said. The rest fall under responsibility of medical examiners or coroners.
"We have to use circumstantial evidence and history, not medical charts," Baden said. "This is a very difficult area to explain to a jury, and they have to accept it" for a conviction.
That gamble can gnaw at a prosecutor, Brazelton said.
"All you need is one juror sitting there thinking, 'Well, that Smart girl was found after (nine) months, who's to say what happened here?'" he said. He referred to Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old Salt Lake City girl returned safely to her family in March after allegedly being kidnapped by a drifter.
Stanislaus County authorities were building a no-body case in 1991 when the remains of 69-year-old Joy Bell Goad were discovered buried in her own back yard. That was 11 months after her grandnephew killed her with a roofer's hammer. He remained at large until 1996 and was convicted of her murder the following year.
In August 2001, Modesto police were working hard to prove that Shanti Prakash had been killed by her boyfriend. The day before 61-year-old James Young was scheduled to take a lie detector test, he killed himself at Lake Tahoe. Eight months later, hikers found Prakash's body near Lake Tahoe.
As for the Peterson case, Lungen said Modesto authorities have their work cut out for them. No-body cases and those without a cause of death "are a lot of work -- you have to be willing to take a run at it," he said.
But scarcity of traditional evidence should not detract authorities anywhere, Lungen said.
"(Suspects) can't use a lack of remains as a shield to hide criminal responsibility when they're the ones responsible for not having the remains," he said.
Said Baden: "If a bad guy destroyed the body or was able to bury it where it would never be found, or if he put it in water or the woods where animals or fish could get at it, are you going to say he gets an automatic pass? There should be a fair way of reaching a verdict."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or email@example.com.
Here are some examples of prosecution in slayings in which authorities did not recover the bodies:
MARCH 2003 -- A mistrial is declared in the murder case of Bruce Koklich. He is suspected of murdering the late state Sen. Paul Carpenter's daughter, whose body has not been found. A second trial is scheduled to start May 22.
FEBRUARY 2003 -- A Santa Clara County jury convicts Gustavo Covian in the 1998 murder-for-hire slaying of Young Kim, whose body has never been recovered. The victim's wife, who allegedly paid Covian $100,000, and two others are expected to stand trial soon.
JANUARY 2003 -- Authorities in the Philippines arrest Joseph Eli Morrow on suspicion of killing his wife after a violent argument in Menlo Park 11 years earlier. Her body has never been found.
SEPTEMBER 2000 -- Thomas Sax and Tommy Ray Daigle blame a 21-year-old man for the drunken driving arrest of a friend, then beat and strangle him and dump the body in a garbage bin in Florida. Authorities search a landfill for nearly a week in vain. Sax and Daigle are convicted of murder anyway.
JULY 2000 -- A Merced County jury convicts Adolfo Romo Martinez of murdering his companion, Lilia Anguiano of Los Banos. Neighbors saw them talking together shortly before she disappeared; her body has never been found.
2000 -- Sante Kimes and her son, Kenneth Kimes, are convicted in New York for killing their wealthy landlady, whose corpse has never been found.
1999 -- Prominent Delaware lawyer Thomas Capano is sentenced to death for killing his mistress because she wanted to end their secret affair. He dumped her body in the Atlantic Ocean and it was never recovered.
1986 --Richard Crafts bludgeons his wife to death in Connecticut, stores her body in a freezer, dismembers it with a chain saw and runs the frozen pieces through a two-ton wood chipper, scattering the pieces into the Housatonic River. Investigators eventually recover minuscule bits of bone and hair. Though DNA matching was not then available, Crafts is convicted.
1985 -- Dr. Robert Bierenbaum dumps his wife's body in the Atlantic Ocean from a private airplane and it is never recovered. Fifteen years later, a jury -- convinced by a stream of circumstantial evidence -- convicts him.
1982 -- Mark Christopher Crew fleeces his bride out of her life savings, shoots and dismembers her, and dumps body parts off the Dumbarton Bridge across San Francisco Bay. He is eventually sentenced to death.