WILMINGTON, Ohio - Vincent Doan goes on trial today, charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Carrie Culberson, in a case experts say may be tough for the prosecution.
Ms. Culberson, missing since August, is presumed dead by her parents and Clinton County prosecutors. And in a murder trial without a body in evidence, that is the first thing prosecutors will have to prove.
"Obviously the absence of a body is a severe hole that you have to fill in a case," said Christo Lassiter, a criminal law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Murder trials without a body are rare in Ohio and the rest of the country, legal experts say. No one seems to keep detailed records on these kinds of case. But in the United States, the first such conviction was in a 1957 California case.
Prosecutors in "no-body" cases, forced to rely almost solely on circumstantial evidence, must convince a jury of two basic points:
"The prosecutor is at a disadvantage," Mr. Lassiter said. "He or she is going to have to explain why they don't have a dead body there, and provide evidence as a substitute."
- The victim met with foul play and is dead.
- The suspect had a direct hand in that foul play.
The defense often uses the absence of a body to question whether a murder even occurred. If the jury has reasonable doubt, a not guilty verdict will be the likely result.
No-body cases, some experts say, come with a measure of reasonable doubt built-in.
"Without some evidence of the manner of death, without some scientific or physical evidence to link the person charged with whatever happened . . . it seems it would be difficult for the government to prove," said Jamie Gardner, a lawyer and clinical instructor at Harvard University Law School's Criminal Justice Institute.
In a no-body case, prosecutors must gather evidence to support the claim that one day a person was alive, and the next day that same person was dead, and likely the victim of murder.
"Prosecutors must be meticulous about amassing circumstantial and direct evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt," Clermont County Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Breyer said.
Warren County Prosecutor Tim Oliver said it's critical in no-body cases for prosecutors to show the victim no longer practices daily, weekly and even annual routines. This includes everything from making phone calls to friends and family, trips to the cash machine and celebrating birthdays.
"You put on lots of evidence of habit, and the jury is able to infer from that evidence that if that person was still alive then that person would be still doing those same things," Mr. Oliver said.
Once the prosecutor has made a case that a murder has occurred, the next step is to attribute that death to murder at the hands of the suspect. Depending on the case, a prosecutor may try to prove the accused had discussed the crime, or simply had motive.
"Not having a body, you better have some solid evidence that it happened," said Mr. Breyer, who said he has yet to prosecute such a case. "I've proven robberies without having the victim (present in court). I've been missing essential parts, but as long as you can fill in the gaps, you can win the case."
Mr. Oliver, who also has not prosecuted such a case, said he doesn't think the defense automatically has the advantage in these situations.
"Technically the defense has no burden of proof . . . but the defense has to raise reasonable doubt," he said. "The defense has to present a plausible theory about why the victim has been gone forever and a day."
Another part of the prosecutor's task is to educate jurors on the necessary elements for a guilty verdict.
"Some (jurors) are always looking for a confession, a lot of jurors are looking for fingerprints," Mr. Breyer said. "You have to alter the jurors' perceptions of what is key to proving a case."
Doan case unpredictable
It is impossible to predict how the Doan trial will unfold. Police and prosecutors have said little about what they will attempt to prove in court over the next few weeks.
Ms. Culberson disappeared during the early morning hours of Aug. 29. No trace of her has been found, despite several searches and unsubstantiated sightings of her or her car.
Clinton County Prosecutor William Peelle, who has never prosecuted a bodyless murder case, alleges Mr. Doan, 24, kidnapped and killed Ms. Culberson, 22, on the streets of Blanchester, the couple's hometown. The village is about an hour northeast of Cincinnati.
Prosecutors say the pair fought and Mr. Doan punched Ms. Culberson before kidnapping her and finally killing her. Hours later, Mr. Doan was "observed covered with blood," according documents filed in court by Clinton County prosecutors.
Dayton, Ohio, attorney John Rion denies his client and Ms. Culberson were fighting the morning she disappeared. He said Ms. Culberson came by Mr. Doan's home early Aug. 29 and asked him to follow her to a bar in Marathon.
According to Mr. Rion, Mr. Doan refused, and she left. Mr. Doan soon became concerned that Ms. Culberson might have been intoxicated, so he borrowed his father's truck and decided to drive to Marathon to find her. En route, the truck broke down.
Mr. Doan has pleaded not guilty to murder and aggravated murder in the commission of a felony (kidnapping), and four counts of kidnapping. A conviction on the charge of aggravated murder in the commission of a felony would make him eligible for the death penalty.
Cases pose challenge
The built-in disadvantage of any no-body case, prosecutors say, is not enough to keep them from pressing murder charges. But it's still a tough assignment.
Though these cases are few and far between, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said it would be a greater concern if authorities didn't have the latitude to send such cases to trial.
"You would be rewarding the craftiest of killers if you had a blanket rule that you needed a body before prosecuting a murder case," Mr. Deters said.
In Ohio, one of the most recent no-body cases went to trial last fall in Monroe County. David Christman of Woodsfield was convicted in October for the 1984 slaying of his wife, Rena. To this day, her body has not been found.
Prosecutor J. Miller Leavy is credited with winning the first no-body murder conviction in 1957 in Los Angeles. There were others before, but either witnesses or the murderer stepped forward, or the body was found.
In the 1957 case, L. Ewing Scott was charged with killing his socialite wife and burying her in one of the concrete supports of a freeway.
Though the body of Evelyn Thornsby Scott, 63, was never found, Mr. Scott was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mr. Leavy told the Los Angeles Times in 1986 about his strategy.
"What we did was prove 'the suddenly interrupted life pattern' of Evelyn Scott," he said.