The Presumption of Murder
When is a missing person considered permanently missing? The lack of a body causes havoc with justice systems everywhere in the world.
It is difficult enough to prove what happened to someone to cause their death when you have a body to prove that they are dead. What if there is no body? This is not as uncommon as I thought, it exacerbates the suffering of the friends and family, and it causes problems for law enforcement because missing persons are not given the same resources as murder victims.
Of the cases I focus on most closely, there are two which are officially missing persons: Suzy Lamplugh and Claudia Lawrence.
A glance at Wikipedia will show you that Suzy Lamplugh died on 27th July 1993. This is a curious date, because it was 28th July 1986 that she was last seen alive. Why did it take precisely seven years for her death to be recognised? At the moment, that is the way the British law works in the case of a missing person: seven years is the earliest date on which someone can be declared legally dead, and only if the family go through the legal process to achieve that status for their relative.
There is a conundrum at the heart of any case of a missing adult, as distinct from a child. If someone reports a child missing, the police and other services fire up almost immediately because they know that every minute counts. But a missing adult? How do we begin to define missing? When did you last speak to your parents or grandparents? How do they know whether you are missing or just carrying on your life? How long would it be before someone you know called the police? And how embarrassing would it be if it turned out you had gone on holiday without telling anyone?
The single most striking aspect of the Suzy Lamplugh disappearance is how quickly the police realised something unusual had happened. They became involved within just a few hours of her manager, Mark Gurdon, raising the alarm. If only someone at Claudia Lawrence’s work had acted so quickly, she might have been found. It was over 24 hours before Claudia’s family raised the alarm.
The moment the police found Suzy’s abandoned car at 10pm on the day of her disappearance, 28th July 1986, they treated the case as abduction and possible murder. But they had already been making enquiries for hours before then. However it was the finding of the abandoned car, parked suspiciously, that permitted the police to label the case as abduction or murder and focus even more resources on the investigation.
In a cruel twist of fate, Claudia Lawrence had been walking to work in the days before her abduction because her car was in the garage for an extended repair. The police and family believe that Claudia was snatched at some point on her final walk to work, very early in the morning, most likely by someone who knew her daily routine. If that is what happened, then the car repair inadvertently contributed to Claudia’s death, and consequently there was no evidence at all that Claudia had been abducted or when precisely she had gone missing.
Wikipedia lists Claudia Lawrence as ‘missing’ for a whisker under thirteen years. Why no date of death? What is the difference between Claudia and Suzy? In this case, it not just one of those inconsistencies you often see on Wikipedia because there is no central editing team.
In fact, it seems that Claudia was never declared legally dead. Her mother felt that such a formal declaration would somehow reduce the hope that Claudia would ever be found. She explains her dilemma in the Daily Mirror. Whereas Suzy’s parents accepted that she had died and filed the relevant paperwork, Claudia’s parents did not agree to register her death.
Claudia Lawrence’s father, Peter, in common with Suzy Lamplugh’s mother, became a fervent campaigner in the years after his daughter disappeared. He kept Claudia in the memory of the general public but more than that, he also campaigned to make it easier for the families of missing people to administer the estates and financial affairs of the missing. Perhaps this is the reason her parents were less keen to register their daughter as legally dead, because they had additional protections in law by that point. Claudia’s Law came into effect in 2017 and makes it easier for the families to take care of the financial affairs of their missing relatives after just 90 days.
Even if someone has been declared legally dead it does not make it suddenly easier to arrest suspects. It means that the missing persons’ assets can be sold, for example. Both Suzy and Claudia owned property. However, just to show that no two cases are the same, the Lawrences chose to keep Claudia’s house more or less how it was on the day she disappeared. This was an astute decision: advances in DNA and other forensic techniques could have made items in the house relevant to a future investigation.
It remains virtually impossible to charge anyone with murder in the absence of a body. Without a confession, without the cooperation of the person least motivated to help (the presumed killer) then there is virtually no chance of a conviction. Perhaps you know of some exceptions? Please let us know and we will cover the cases on Crime Guy.
In Britain, we have a brilliant charity that helps the families left behind when a relative disappears. You can find out more about Missing People here.