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Former California District Attorney Explains How He Won Notable ‘No Body’ Murder Cases
Former California deputy district attorney Matt Murphy explained to CrimeCon 2022 attendees how t victims' loved ones often helped seal convictions when a murdered person's body could not be found.
So, do you think you can get away with murder if the body is never found? Think again.
Former California Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy debunked the “no body, no crime” theory when reexamining three notable cases he tried out of California. In the spirit of Las Vegas, which held CrimeCon 2022, Murphy opened his panel with a quote from the iconic film “Casino” — sans the Joe Pesci accent.
“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems in those holes,” Murphy began. “But you gotta do it right.”
The quote would be apt for the first case Murphy presented: The 1998 disappearance of Peter Theriault, whose body has still never been found. Step by step, Murphy took guests through the investigative process entailed by Theriault’s vanishing, including blood drops in the garage of his Irvine home and cadaver dogs leading investigators to Theirault’s girlfriend, Judy Valot.
Murphy was able to convict Valot in 2005 by showing the jury that the defendant allegedly became obsessive and jealous when she suspected Theriault — whom Murphy described as a “genuinely nice guy” — of having an affair with a younger coworker.
It is believed that Theriault is buried in the desert near Blythe, Riverside County, California.
“You get to win ‘no body’ cases because you get to show the enormity, the emotional toll of what has happened,” he said.
Murphy said that in typical murder cases where there is a body, prosecutors only have to prove the acts of murder. In trials where the body has never been found, emotion plays a significant role because you have to prove that there's only one reason nobody has ever heard from him or her again.
“In a ‘no body’ case, you have to prove the victim’s dead,” said Murphy. “When you have a body, that’s it. The jury never gets to hear who they were, what they did, what their dreams were, who their best friends were. When you don't have the body, you get to call those people.”
"The grandma gets to come in and say, 'He would never miss Christmas with me.' The best friend gets to say, 'We went to the big game every year," Murphy continued. "You get to put on these people who loved the victim and the jury gets to see that, and it's incredibly powerful."
Murphy also revisited the 2004 case of Tom and Jackie Hawks, a married couple who disappeared shortly before they made good on their plans to end their years at sea and move from Newport Beach, California to Arizona. They never arrived and soon, mounting physical evidence pointed to a man and his pregnant wife, who were listed as the boat’s new owners, as the perpetrators of a horrible crime.
The Hawks’ tragic fate was revealed when a state’s witness (now serving time for his role in the murder) described how the Hawks were tied to an anchor and dropped into the Sea of Cortez. As the killers steered the boat to the couple's final resting place — which remains unknown — Tom Hawks caressed his wife’s hand, knowing they were about to die.
Tom told his wife that he knew they would be together.
“When you do a ‘no body’ case, the jury gets to see the reflection of your victim’s soul in the eyes of those who love them,” said Murphy.
Murphy also let audiences in on the case of Edward Shin, the man convicted of killing his business partner, Chris Smith. In a bizarre tale involving greed, fake e-mails and kidnapping hoaxes, it took only blood splatter evidence and digital tracking to convict Shin of murder.
Like Theriault, Smith is also believed to be buried in the desert.
“So the jury convicted, the family got justice,” said Murphy. “He’s out there, and it’s peaceful in the desert. And I think the family is at peace, too.”
CrimeCon 2022 is produced by Red Seat Ventures and presented by Oxygen.