Sarah Stern case: How to try a murder charge with no body
Trying to prove someone is guilty of murder is an arduous enough task for prosecutors. When the body of the defendant's alleged victim has never been recovered, a conviction can become even trickier.
In the case of the trial over Sarah Stern's alleged death, which went to a jury that hasn't yet returned a verdict Monday, prosecutors likely have enough to overcome the absence of a body, according to criminal defense attorney and former Morris County prosecutor Robert Bianchi.
"You want the body because the body tells a lot, but it doesn't mean that you can't prosecute without the body," Bianchi told New Jersey 101.5.
Twenty-one-year-old Liam McAtasney, of Neptune City, is accused of strangling Stern, a former classmate, to death during a December 2016 robbery at her home. He and a friend, who had pleaded guilty in the case, worked together to dump her body over the Route 35 bridge in Belmar and make it appear that Stern committed suicide, Monmouth County prosecutors allege.
Officials searched multiple times for Stern's body in the Shark River, but came up empty handed each time.
Still, prosecutors have a strong "no-body case," according to Bianchi.
Video shown during the trial, which began Jan. 23, showed the defendant confessing to the murder to an acquaintance, who was secretly recording the conversation for police. McAtasney's alleged accomplice, Preston Taylor, provided testimony on his involvement, and detailed the pair's motive — money that, after it was stolen, was buried and later recovered by officials in Sandy Hook, where Taylor said it could be found.
"A confession alone ... without any supporting or cooperating evidence, is not sufficient for a prosecution," Bianchi said. "In other words, you can't convict somebody merely from a statement they make. You need some evidence, however slight, that confirms the statement the defendant gave."
Bianchi said while someone's ability to successfully dispose of a body won't grant them a get-out-of-jail-free card, failure to recover a body can make the prosecution's job "a little more difficult."
"Here in this case, it's a little better for the prosecution," he said.
In his closing arguments on Friday, defense attorney Carlos Diaz-Cobo told jurors "there is no murder" without a body. During the trial, a man testified to seeing a live woman who looked like Stern on the day she was reported missing.
"Not having a body is not reasonable doubt when you have two involved saying we killed her, we threw her off the bridge, we took her money," Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Decker said during his closing arguments.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.