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Codi Bigsby trial begins: The history of "no body" murder trials in Virginia

Cory Bigsby photographed during a court proceeding. (Photo courtesy of WTKR)
Cory Bigsby photographed during a court proceeding. (Photo courtesy of WTKR)

Cory Bigsby goes on trial Monday, charged with the murder of his 4-year-old son Codi — even though no body has been found. WHRO spoke with former prosecutor and legal scholar Laura Killinger of William & Mary Law School about the history of “no body” murder cases in Virginia.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


WHRO: Let's start with the basics. Just how difficult is it to try a murder case with no body?

Laura Killinger: Well, in any murder case, the prosecutor has to prove that a particular person died at the hands of another person and that the defendant is the one who did that. So in cases where there's no body, the authorities have to prove that the alleged victim was actually killed and isn't just missing. So it is significantly more difficult than in a regular murder case where you have a body that can be examined by a coroner and that can be identified by loved ones later on as a person who is deceased, and where you can examine the body and determine the method of death.

WHRO: There are a few cases in Virginia that set a precedent for this one, including the 1980 case of the Radford University student Gina Hall. It took about 40 years for her remains to be found, but Steven Epperly was convicted for her murder long before that. Tell us more about how that case played out legally.

LK: So that case was sort of a cutting edge case at the time, because it was the first 'no body' case in Virginia.

With that case, there was pretty much overwhelming circumstantial evidence. And it was prosecutors piecing together that circumstantial evidence of people who had seen Epperly with Gina Renee Hall, and then when they found bloodstains in the cabin, when they found fibers and things like that in the car of the trunk that was identified to connect to Epperly. So there's a lot of circumstantial evidence in that particular case that allowed prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

There was no statement or confession by Epperly, and in fact, Epperly maintained his innocence. And despite that, he was convicted and sentenced to life.

WHRO: What other kind of evidence can the prosecution present in that case or now in the Bigsby case in 2024? Are there differences?

LK: Oh, definitely. Certainly the developments in DNA evidence have been revolutionary for the criminal justice system, both in identifying and convicting people who did do it, and in exonerating people who did not and who were wrongfully convicted of a crime. So that, of course, is a major factor and difference in these cases since that time.

In addition, there's been a lot more developments in other areas of forensic science. So for instance, identification of fibers, identification of hair samples and all kinds of things like that are much better. So there is quite a bit of different technology.

Now, you had mentioned the different types of evidence. Circumstantial evidence is something that a lot of times your listeners may have heard about in passing. And there is this mistaken belief out there that circumstantial evidence is not good, and maybe it's not even admissible, and that's just simply not true. Oftentimes, circumstantial evidence can be extremely helpful in these cases and is usually always admissible.

WHRO: Cory Bigsby made written confessions in jail and then recanted them. A judge ruled in November those were admissible. Does that change anything about the way this trial would be handled?

LK: Some people think, "oh gosh, there's a confession or there's a statement, isn't that, you know, the end of the story?" But a good defense attorney can poke holes through a confession. And so as a prosecutor, they will need to find as much cooperating evidence that shows independently that whatever the defendant said the way they did it really is borne out by corroborating evidence, that they find either at the scene or afterward.

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