Attorneys Say Criminal Case Against Girl’s Uncle Strong, Even Before Body Recovered
CACHE COUNTY, Utah — This morning, the Cache County Attorney filed aggravated murder charges against 21-year-old Alex Whipple in the death of five-year-old Elizabeth Shelley.
That charge carries the potential for the death penalty, though that has now been taken off the table in exchange for information from Whipple that led police to Elizabeth’s remains.
But, could a murder case have been made without first finding Elizabeth?
According to the charging documents, Cache County prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to show Whipple murdered “Lizzy” Shelley even before finding her body. A couple of criminal defense attorneys who also worked previously as prosecutors shared their thoughts.
“It looks to be a pretty compelling case, or at least a case where the prosecution has what we call probable cause to charge him,” said Greg Skordas a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor in Salt Lake County who is not working on this case.
After reading the probable cause statement, he thinks Cache County prosecutors had a good case against Alex Whipple even before they located the body.
“It’s difficult for a prosecutor to charge a homicide without a body. But it’s not impossible,” said Skordas. “What they need is substantial evidence.”
Like this evidence spelled out in the probable cause statement:
“There is evidence including Elizabeth’s blood found on a knife, Elizabeth’s blood found on Alexander, and Alexander’s partial right palm print found in the red substance on the PVC pipe to believe Alexander has committed the aggravated murder of Elizabeth Shelley.”
“It looks like the law enforcement has done a pretty thorough investigation,” said Skordas. “They have DNA, and they’ve actually processed the DNA.”
“It is better to have a body, and the legal concept we’re talking about is ‘corpus delicti’, which means ‘body of the crime,'” said former prosecutor, B. Kent Morgan.
He said all crimes demand proof of what happened. Prosecutors may have been able to prove the murder case to a jury without the body or human remains, said Morgan. But, a defense attorney could have argued there was still reasonable doubt about her death.
“As a defense attorney, you don’t have to prove that it’s true, you have to prove that there’s reasonable doubt,” he said.
Now, there appears to be evidence that Elizabeth was kidnapped from her home and killed. All of the other evidence collected before they found her remains now provides a clearer picture as the investigation continues.
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