Why so many missing person cases are not prosecuted

Today, the attorney for Zinah Jennings, the mother who reported her 18-month-old son, Amir missing around Thanksgiving of last year, said that the judge should throw out an indictment against Zinah.

“You can’t weigh the rights of a defendant against the rights of a missing child,” Attorney Hemphill Pride said.

To bring you up to date on this case, authorities didn’t know little Amir was missing until the police interviewed Zinah after a car wreck on Christmas Eve.  After changing her story several times she said her son was with relatives, and to this day Amir has never been found, although authorities have done everything to find him.

Police indicted Zinah last month for unlawful conduct toward a child, but Pride argues there isn’t poof that she harmed Amir.

I know many of you are yelling at your computer screen right now, and think that Zinah should be locked up for ever.  But, like it or not Pride does have a point.  Zinah said that Amir is safe.  How do we know he isn’t?

By the way, Zinah’s statement should sound familiar, as John Skelton, who is also currently in jail, is saying the same thing about his three missing sons, that they are safe, but he won’t divulge where they are.

Over the several years I have been reporting on missing person, it is as though everyone that has “done away” with another person, knows now that all they have to do is hide the body and they will get away with it. 

It is frustratingly true.  Without a body it is extremely hard to prosecute someone, and with the rise of computers, social networking, and shows like Nancy Grace, everyone knows if you hide a body, your chances of getting away with it are pretty high.

“The law says you must pass the corpus delecti rule, which refers to a body of crime,” says Michigan prosecutor Stuart Fenton. “Normally, you have a body and a coroner who will tell you the cause of death. With a missing body, you don’t have that. You have to prove by circumstantial evidence that there was a death and the death occurred by criminal means. A lot of prosecutors are afraid of taking on these cases because of these obstacles.”

Because there is no body, questions that normally would be uncontested, like the fact the person is really dead, the place of death, and the cause of death, just becomes fuel for the defense.  Our judicial system is set up so that any piece of evidence presented by the prosecution can become the defense target for reasonable doubt.

For a killer this works out pretty well.

Even with failed polygraphs and blood-stained rugs, evidence, excuse me, circumstantial evidence can be explained away, and even if the police were able to bring a person to trial on circumstantial evidence, there is still the hurdle of reasonable doubt during the trial. 

No one knows this more than the police and there are many cases where they try to get around this major obstacle by putting who they believe is responsible for someones death in jail for another charge, like what is going on with Zinah. (Remember Al Capone).

Jacque Waller

For example,Clay Waller, the husband of missing Jacque Waller was  arrested for making Internet threats against Jacque Waller’s sister, who has custody of the couple’s triplets, in the days following her disappearance. 

But there are those that believe that circumstantial cases can be stronger than direct evidence cases.

“You don’t have all the baggage that may come if police are not as careful as they should be at the scene of a crime,” said Joshua Marquis to ABC News

“With some elements of a circumstantial case, you can’t change it.  You can’t lie about it.  You can’t misidentify fingerprints; you can’t lie about DNA,” said Richard Holmes.

Even though circumstantial evidence is a hindrance for police, and for some attorney’s, it is not for the general public. 

For example, the Susan Powell case, there was no body, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of pressure on Josh Powell from public scrutiny.  In part, what may have been exactly what put him over the edge.


Baby Lisa Irwin’s mother Deborah, has been found guilty by the public, mostly by  women who plain didn’t like Deborah’s demeanor.  The internet was afire with personal theories on what she did to her baby and personal attacks on what they would like to do to her.  

For some, social interaction should not be bothered with something as binding as circumstantial evidence.   These “groups” can make it nearly impossible for the person they have zeroed in on to be able to live a normal life again. 

Once you delve deeper into cases, though the more you begin to understand it isn’t as easy as grabbing someone and locking them up in jail because that “seem” guilty.

In the case of missing Azaria Chamberlain, whose mother, Lindy, was convicted for killing her even though she claimed, “A dingo took my baby.”   It wasn’t till a piece of the baby’s clothing was found near a dingo den in 2011, that Lindy was released from prison.  The woman spent many years in prison for something she didn’t do, even though, there are still people out there that strongly believe she is responsible for her child’s disappearance and probably death.

Although the judicial system has said she is not guilty, she will always be labored with finger pointing.   I doubt it is anymore painful to her than the guilt she feels over the loss of her baby to a wild animal.

And I suppose that is the jest of it all.  Judicial systems, evidence, social media can all present themselves as the last word on someone’s guiltiness, but it is only the guilty person that really knows the truth and will live the rest of their life persecuted by their conscience….if they have one.

Our judicial system is doing the best it can.  And I think it’s pretty darn good.

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Jerrie Dean, who is retired from Federal Law Enforcement, is the Founder of Missing Persons of America.

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