Corpus Delicti Rule Requires Dismissal of Child Molestation Charge

In re Personal Restraint of Clyde R. Spencer (2009)

The Washington Supreme Court has clarified the impact of a 2003 Washington statute modifying the corpus delicti rule. It did so in explaining why the child molestation charge in State of Washington v. Keith Ian Dow, 2010 WL 457152, Dkt. No. 81243-8 (2/11/10), should be dismissed.

Dow was charged with first-degree child molestation of a three-year-old girl. The child was not competent to testify at trial, and her statements outside court were not admissible at trial. The only remaining evidence against Dow was his statements in a police interview. (The trial judge found those statements ultimately exculpatory, but the prosecutor must have disagreed with that assessment, as the prosecutor conceded the State had no other evidence and still wished to proceed to trial.)

The corpus delicti rule, a centuries-old feature of Anglo-American jurisprudence, prohibits basing a criminal conviction on nothing but a confession. It requires there be some other evidence a crime occurred. It reflects judges’ mistrust of confessions.

In seeking to proceed with its case against Dow, the State relied upon a Washington statute enacted in 2003. The statute, Revised Code of Washington Section 10.58.035, modified the corpus delicti rule for cases in which alleged victims are dead or incompetent to testify. It says that in such cases:

… a lawfully obtained and otherwise admissible confession, admission, or other statement of the defendant shall be admissible into evidence if there is substantial independent evidence that would tend to establish [its] trustworthiness.

The supreme court noted that “the corpus delicti rule is both a rule of admissibility and a rule of sufficiency” of the evidence to support a conviction. The 2003 statute, the court observed, changed the admissibility rule; it made certain statements admissible, contrary to previous understandings of the corpus delicti rule. But the statute did not modify the sufficiency rule, the court held: “the State must still prove every element of the crime charged by evidence independent of the defendant’s statement.” Since the State conceded it had no such evidence against Dow, the court ordered the charge against him dismissed without trial.