Murder Convictions Without a Body: the ‘Campden Wonder’

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Gavel on coaster

In Australia, a person can be found guilty of murder without a body – but this hasn’t always been the case.

Abundant caution should be a priority these cases, as it can become awkward when ‘murder victims’ resurface, alive and well.

The Campden Wonder

A tragic case involving precisely this scenario occurred back in 17th century England – after three people were hanged, the ‘victim’ reappeared, sparking an overhaul on this area of law.

The 1660 case, famously known as the ‘Campden Wonder’, took place in the town of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. The alleged murder victim was William Harrison, a 70-year-old man who went for a two mile walk and never returned home.

His wife became worried and sent a servant to find him. The next morning, neither her husband, nor the servant John Perry, had returned. William Harrison’s son, Edward, became worried and set out to look for them.

Edward couldn’t find his father but he did find John. They continued the search together, finding locals who said they had seen William the night before, and later they came across some of his belongings stashed by a road. A bloodied shirt and collar were among those items. William’s torn hat was also found.

There was no sign of William – until John made a surprising admission, claiming he knew his master had been murdered, but proclaiming his own innocence.

John laid the blame on his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard – but both adamantly maintained their innocence.

The matter went to court, but before the murder charge was dealt with, there was a trial relating to a plan to rob William. John implicated himself in this plan, as well as his mother and brother.

All three were found guilty but pardoned by the judge, in order to speed along the pending murder charges.

The Murder Trial

John, Joan and Richard vehemently maintained their innocence throughout the trial, but all were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. They were hanged together.

But William turned up the next year – claiming to have been abducted by pirates and taken onto their ship, before being sold into slavery in Turkey. He said that he finally managed to escape and make his way home.

His story was never verified, but his return was too late to save the Perry family. It was now obvious that all three defendants had been hanged for a murder that never took place.

In order to avert any repetition, the law was changed so that people could no longer be tried for murder if there was no body.

That rule remained in place in the UK until 1954.

The Law in Australia

Australia does not have a ‘no body, no murder’ rule today, but for obvious reasons, proving a murder charge can be more difficult if a body is not located.

Such prosecutions have, however, been successful.

The 1993 case of Johann Weissensteiner is one example of a man who was convicted of murder after setting sail with a young couple who were expecting a baby. Weissensteiner reappeared in Cairns, but the young couple who owned the boat were never heard of again.

Suspicion eventually formed around Weissensteiner, and he was convicted of two counts of murder.

And again in 2012, 56-year-old Susan Neill-Fraser was charged and convicted of murdering her partner. He was last seen on his boat in 2009 and his body never surfaced. Despite this, the jury found enough evidence to convict Neill-Fraser of his murder, and the conviction was confirmed by the Tasmanian Court of Criminal Appeal in 2012.

As these cases demonstrate, defendants can be found guilty of murder even if a body is never located. Indeed, circumstantial evidence alone can be enough in to prove serious criminal offences. Advances in technology can also assist to establish a person’s guilt or innocence, helping to clear up a number of unsolved Australian murders.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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