Colorado Supreme Court abandons corpus delicti rule

Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed a centuries-old rule governing the use of confessions as evidence in criminal cases. The standard for admitting confessions as evidence in such cases has been the corpus delicti rule.

"Corpus delicti" literally translates to the "body of the crime." In other words, the rule requires the admission of evidence — besides the confession — to prove that a crime actually occurred. The confession alone is not sufficient to show a crime was committed.

In overturning the rule, the Colorado Supreme Court elaborated on the possible reasons that the rule was originally adopted. For instance, the high court explained that the rule protected people from being convicted of crimes they imagined, but did not actually commit — an important safeguard for the accused who suffer from mental illness. In addition, the corpus delicti rule was meant to prevent dependence on confessions alone, to avoid issues with coerced confessions given under pressure from law enforcement officials.

People V. LaRosa

The case before the Colorado Supreme Court arose when a man called a Douglas County emergency operator to report that he had initiated improper sexual contact with his young daughter. The man confessed his actions to the emergency operator, and had previously given similar confessions to members of his family and a pastor.

Due to the confessions, the man was charged with aggravated incest and sexual assault on a child. Prior to the trial, he argued that the charges should be dropped, as no evidence of the crime — apart from his confessions — existed. The trial court disagreed and the man was convicted on all charges.

Subsequently, the court of appeals reversed his conviction, relying on the corpus delicti rule.

Colorado Supreme Court Imposes Trustworthiness Standard

In the majority decision, the Colorado Supreme Court abandoned the corpus delicti rule in favor of the trustworthiness standard. The trustworthiness standard was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court explained the standard required the prosecution to "introduce substantial independent evidence which would tend to establish the trustworthiness of the statement." In other words, the prosecution had to prove that the confession was trustworthy.

The Colorado Supreme Court explained that corroborating evidence showing the trustworthiness of the confession can be obtained from a variety of sources, including:

  • Facts corroborating those admitted in the confession
  • Facts establishing the crime that corroborate facts in the confession
  • Facts "under which the confession was made" that show it was "trustworthy or reliable"

The high court did not apply its decision retroactively, though, which means the individual in the case was acquitted of all charges.

If you are facing criminal charges, it is best to consult with a skilled, Colorado defense attorney to ensure a strong defense is established on your behalf.