Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who Holds the Bargaining Chips?

By Tad DiBiase

Joran Van Der Sloot is back in the news. 

Long suspected of murdering Natalee Holloway and now arrested for the murder of Peruvian Stephany Flores, Van Der Sloot supposedly has told police he will tell them where Miss Holloway’s body is in exchange for transferring him from a Peruvian prison to one in Aruba.  

Having studied no body murder cases for several years, I‘ve observed an increasingly disturbing trend: more and more defendants are using the body of their murdered victim as a bargaining chip.  Van Der Sloot is far from the first.  

Hans Reiser was convicted of murdering his wife in California in 2008.  She had disappeared in 2006 and Reiser denied the murder for years and fought the charge at trial.  After a five month trial, an Oakland jury convicted the Linux inventor of first degree murder.     After the conviction, however, in exchange for a reduced sentence, Reiser led the police to his wife’s body which he had buried less than half a mile from his house.  Instead of facing a sentence of 25 years to life, Reiser’ s charge was reduced to second degree murder which carried a term of only 15 years to life.    

In 2008, prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (my old office) permitted Michael Dickerson to plead guilty to second degree murder and in exchange he agreed to lead police to where he buried the body of his girlfriend, Shaquita Bell.  Dickerson then led police and prosecutors on a futile two day search for Ms. Bell’s body which has never been found. Yet he was still sentenced to just 15 years in prison.  

Just this past May in Tennessee, Douglas Whisnant was able to plea bargain into second degree murder charges by agreeing to show police where he buried his ex-wife’s body.  Whisnant was sentenced to 15 years.  Perhaps more galling, Whisnant is currently serving a 25 year federal firearms sentence and will get credit for his murder sentence, a state charge, will serving his federal time!  Thus, he does no additional time for the murder.  Also in May of this year, Lawrence Gaudenzi was permitted to plead guilty to second degree murder.  As part of the plea he was not required to reveal the whereabouts of his wife’s body.

Now there are clearly some good reasons to let a defendant take a plea in a no body murder case:  weak evidence, getting closure for the family and sometimes getting something is better than getting nothing.  But letting a defendant call the shots and use his victim’s body as a bargaining chip is particularly distasteful given that most of these murderers fit the classic profile of domestic abusers.

It’s all about control and they want to be the ones in control.  Letting murderers use their victim one last time to win themselves leniency is their final act of control and prosecutors ought to be loathe to let them do it.  

Winning a conviction in a no body murder case is difficult and dealing with a grieving and often angry family is equally difficult.  But letting a murderer run the show and determine what charges or sentence he faces is simply unacceptable.


  1. I agree with what you say here. Although I can see the mindset of bring the body home in some cases, I do not understand it in others and it's frustrating. It's like sometimes the State doesn't want to do their homework.

  2. It is all about control.

    What amazes me is that evil drives them even in prison. I just finished John Douglas' book "Anatomy of Motive" very good insight into the minds of these serial killers. It's satisfying to them to be in control and many actually find it titillating to relive their crimes.

    Very good post Ted I enjoy your writing. Thank you.

  3. Tad...I certainly hope that the Aruban officials do not ask the Peruvian officials to give Van der Sloot any break for disclosing where the body of Natalie is...We all know she was thrown into the ocean and will never be found...It would be wrong to let him continue to prey on the Holloway family by keeping their hopes up about the return of her body...If he survives the sentence he recieves in Peru,and gets prosecuted for extortion in the USA,I think Aruba could go after him again. I think he is hoping he will serve his time in A
    ruba...NO Way should that happen...

  4. Tad, I can't call it a bargaining chip. This is extortion, pure and simple. In Van der Sloot's case we can wonder if the Peruvian and Aruban officials have the good sense not to succumb to blackmail. But in no way do we want to dignify this action by elevating it to a par with negotiation.

    On a different note, who is it that agrees to a bargain in which a charge is reduced in exchange for a promise to produce a body? At the very least, body production should be a precondition, not a promise to lead officials to the body. And why is not legislation in place so that such a bargain has a downside for the criminal? It might be that the wild goose chase could result in added charges.


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